How do you impress an Israeli?

60 years of Israel

Avram Cantor

To person

Born in 1950; Publisher, translator and author; Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, P.O. Box 1432, Bnei-Brak / Israel.

It would never have occurred to me that I could be identified as an Israeli by my appearance alone.


It would never have occurred to me that I could be identified as an Israeli just by how I looked - until the day the driver of a passing car in Rome stuck his head out the window and called out to me in Hebrew, "From which one." Kibbutz? " He didn't ask if I was Israeli or if I spoke Hebrew - that was obvious to him. I was amazed at this, but before I could answer it was gone. I stood in the street with my mouth open. How the hell did he know I was Israeli?

After that day I discovered that I, too, can easily identify Israelis, or better: "us". I have also found that this ability is primarily an Israeli one. It is true that people of other nationalities can also identify "us", but not so easily and not in such an excellent way.

When I came from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich a few years later, an Iranian-looking guy insisted on speaking to me in Persian. When he finally realized that I really didn't understand him, he asked me with what was probably the only German words he knew: "Where is Moshe?" I told him in clear German that I didn't know any Moshe and asked him not to pursue me any further, but he asked me over and over again: "Where is Moshe?"

When my host heard the story, he burst out laughing. He explained to me that the poor man was apparently just looking for a mosque. Because I had never needed this German word before, I did not know that mosque means "mosque" in German and that it is pronounced similarly to the Hebrew first name Moshe (Moses). At least one thing was certain: even when the man realized that I was not an Iranian, he was sure that I was a Muslim; he couldn't imagine that I was Jewish or Israeli.

On another occasion, I realized the same "identity confusion". My car broke down in the middle of a noisy intersection between Darmstadt and Frankfurt. Forced to leave the street to pass, the driver of a truck stuck his head out the window and shouted, "Filthy Turk!" The associations that this insult on the part of a fat, blond truck driver in Germany aroused in me are irrelevant here. He recognized me as someone of Semitic origin, but not as an Israeli.

Two weeks later, back in Israel, there was tension on the northern border and I was drafted into reserve service with the army. I had to lead my unit to their base. At an intersection, I pulled my jeep to the side of the road to explain the way to the troops. As at the intersection near Darmstadt, a dark-skinned truck driver yelled in my direction: "Dirty kibbutznik!" In terms of racism, there is no difference between the blond and the dark-skinned, but the latter was "one of us," an Israeli. He recognized me as a kibbutznik, even though I was wearing the same uniform as everyone else. And again I asked myself, "How the hell did he know me?"

I looked at myself in the mirror, trying desperately to discover the hidden clues of identity that seemed to be struck by others. I didn't see any prominent features on my face, but I was amazed at how deeply my Israeli character was engraved into my skin and flesh, and not even in the most visible way. The longer I looked in the mirror, the more I realized how the national events had subtly but unmistakably left their mark on my private life.

Only very dramatic historical events can invade private life, and when that happens it is usually a very powerful force. I was deeply impressed by how the history of the State of Israel not only affected my private life and determined a great deal of it, but how much it also left its mark on my body and has become part of my external identification. Because the marks on my skin do not have any data, I will now list them according to where they were found, from head to toe.

My black hair covers a pale line on the right side of my forehead, the end of which is only visible with a short haircut. This scar is the remains of six stitches that closed a cut. One morning in June 1967, we were digging trenches against air strikes when suddenly a giant Iraqi bomber howled overhead and emitted clouds of black smoke before crashing into the field. My history teacher, who was working a few steps away from me, jerked his hoe in the air and inadvertently cut that scar on my forehead.

Just a few inches from this time, a round scar decorates my right eyebrow - a reminder of the days when the entire surface of the new and rapidly developing state was ditched for irrigation systems. We children quickly discovered carbide, a chemical used to weld water pipes; she had the strength to catapult small tin cans into the air as soon as they came into contact with water. A small rifle that just didn't want to blow up decided to do it, just as I leaned over it to look. So she pressed the intense development of the country as a round shape on my forehead.

My left eyebrow hasn't been left untouched either. A small dent above the brow reinforces my serious expression; it is living proof of the failure of the Syrian attempt to wipe out myself and the entire State of Israel in October 1973. It wasn't a heroic story of the war, actually I didn't deserve this scar because it was given to me for free. I was quietly watching the movements of the fighting parties in the valley below our base when suddenly the world seemed to explode. The pain came long after I understood what had happened. The event left me with other scars hiding under my beard, on my temple, on my neck and under the silvery hair on my chest - fruits of the penetrating metal splinters, souvenirs of the Syrian army. All these signs are covered and almost invisible, but a splinter has pressed a dimple in my left cheek, you can only see it when I smile. Ironically, this dimple, lodged in the middle of my face, does not entitle me to Defense Department compensation because the medical committee decided it was not a disfiguring scar. After all, I get a lot of compliments for her, and she gives me the special gift of weather forecasting, as it signals every impending storm to me.

Another sign is a pomegranate-red spot in the white of my right eye. It doesn't disfigure me and it doesn't have any magic power, it's just red. He points to a tiny fragment of a bazooka missile that was fired at us from a Palestinian ambush from across the Jordan on a very bright, beautiful winter afternoon in the 1970s. We watched the birds nest in the thick reeds on the river bank; the Palestinians watched us and waited for the best moment to strike.

I suppose the flower-like scars on my shoulders from countless vaccinations in the 1950s are by no means typically Israeli. But with us the fear of terrible plagues from far away countries was very real, because many children from all over the world came to Israel, and "who knows what they bring in?" Judging by the number of vaccine scars alone, one might think that this ritual did not happen too often. But the long lines of children who waited with bare shoulders in front of the old British barracks buildings with the round tin roofs, which now served as classrooms, to be vaccinated by the school nurse, is a picture that has made a deep impression on me, so, as if it was a weekly ritual.

Small, very smooth, white patches of skin on my throat document the resourcefulness of a psychiatrist who was on duty as a reserve doctor in a field hospital. I fell into his hands on the way to hospital for medical treatment with a ruptured trachea caused by the aforementioned Syrian grenade. He kept his head clear and was prudent enough to provide me with alternative air access. Within a few days I was able to breathe through my mouth again and the emergency opening was removed, but its marks will forever adorn the base of my neck.

A round and similarly smooth mark on the back of my right hand denotes a greeting that an Egyptian sniper sent me from the west side of the Suez Canal at the end of the 1960s - in those days when the two armies faced each other on the canal and tried unsuccessfully to do so to exhaust the other side. Fortunately, the bullet was probably more exhausted than the sniper or me, because the distance was too great, so she made do with a scratch on the back of my hand.

A finger on my right hand was shortened by a scrap of ammunition from the Israeli army. I didn't know what it was, but it had a nice nib that was easy to push in and just as easy to pop out. I thought this could be a nice toy and wanted to give it to my little cousin. Thank goodness I kept playing and managed to squeeze hard enough to fire the detonator.

Those who have the pleasure of looking at my back cannot miss the long red line. She left a branch of a mulberry tree that stopped my fall from the top of the tree when I tried to pick sweet black mulberries and the thin branch I was standing on broke. I would still be hanging on this branch between heaven and earth today if our neighbor Hawaga Elias had not hurried to fetch a ladder, lift myself from the branch and put my trembling feet on the ground. I owe great thanks to Hawaga Elias, not only for getting me back on my feet, but perhaps even more for suddenly realizing that a person can be good even if he is Arab.

Every metal detector in every airport in the world sounds the alarm when I pass it. Because metal souvenirs from almost all armies in the Middle East are planted under my skin. This is the combined result of all armies using explosives in Israel and the surrounding areas.

That would be the peculiarities of my body. I remember all of the events that caused those times, but I would much rather forget most of them. Other very dramatic events that I will never forget have left no marks on my body, such as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It seems that only the ugly side of history is capable of marking a body.

As you can see, none of these signs helped the racist truck drivers identify me. I am a Jewish Israeli and as I have described it is burned into my body. But I still cannot explain to you how other Israelis can recognize this so quickly, at first glance.

I was born five years after the end of World War II, and almost three years after the State of Israel was founded. My parents called me Avraham, after my grandfather, Adolf. When I was twelve, the "h" was cut from my name as a sign of turning away from God, and I became Avram. It's good. Who knows what my reaction would have been to the Iranian's question if my parents had called me Moshe.

Translation from English: Hans-Georg Golz, Bonn.