An encounter with Miriam Levinger

“Hebron is mine,” was the clear, unrelenting message she conveyed – and got a claim on my heart.

Op-ed.

Martin Hoffman , 29/09/20 09:36 Share
הרבנית מרים לוינגר

הרבנית מרים לוינגרצילום: באדיבות המשפחה

It was years ago when I met her. I’d just extracted a cold beer from the fridge when I saw her, suddenly, at the end of the news. She was shouting at a burly Israeli policemen as he dragged her to the police van. What in heaven’s name was someone like that doing in Hebron?!

Surrounded by screaming, fist-clenching Arabs, by gun-slinging Jewish settlers: a brief cacophony of threats, accusations, profanities, and then she was gone as the sports news flashed the latest basketball scores. The smiling weatherman came along, predicting sunny skies, yet the image stuck there in my brain – a middle-aged housewife clashing with the tough Israeli police.

As though that ten-second flash on the screen had revealed a hidden element that encompassed the blacks beaten in Mississippi; the draft resisters mauled by police; the women, in America, decades ago, demanding to vote. In those ten seconds, her voice carried so much pure anger and pain, it arrested me, diverting thought and feeling; provoking amazement and wonder. I stared at the still untouched beer, a sudden irresistable urge to question her sweeping over me.

I spent an entire day worrying about the trip: it was the bus ride from Jerusalem to Hebron that kicked off the sharp twinges of fear. The road there ran a gauntlet of Arab villages where stoning, Molotov Cocktails, and shootings were regular fare – as though Hebron housed a hard core of unmitigated Arab hatred for Jews, untouched by official codes and designs. The unprovoked bloody massacre of their longtime Jewish neighbors in 1929 was not that long ago.

I rode there in a bullet-proof bus, past hordes of Arab workers, vineyards, massive Mercedes trucks, piles of stone, steel concrete blocks, rusted-out cars with the fear tingling in my bones and thoughts of Hemingway courting danger, standing before a charging lion. Or the infamous games of “chicken” with two hopped-up cars roaring toward each other.

The bus rumbled along past countryside that the ancient Hebrew spies had come through thousands of years ago. A land, they reported, with frightening prospects, with giants and fierce tribes; a land that would, they told the wandering Jews, eat them alive. There it was: my own fear was the voice of the ten spies, mesmerizing me with horrific postures and unchecked terror.

I got off the bus just before sunset, beside a small enclave of Israeli families guarded by a handful of soldiers. And as I stood there, I suddenly saw her husband, Rabbi Levinger, on his way to the synagogue for the afternoon prayer. His raised eyebrows were the only indication of surprise. He opened the car door and motioned me in. It seemed perfectly natural – as did the two soldiers in the front seat, M-16 automatic rifles, flak vests, and the flashing blue light as we roared off to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Inside the building, we enter a small synagogue, the walls covered with Arab calligraphy – snake-like forms slithering around my head in memory of long-dead caliphs and sultans. Past and present colliding as I stand there with the winding bus ride behind me, the armed guards, the muezzin’s distant calling, the Jews chanting like the flutter of birds against the cacophony of counter-culture voices that defined and explicated me. The Beatles, the Stones, Joe Country and the Fish all shrinking into a feeble cliché.

Afterwards, in the Levinger apartment, Miriam bustles about her great aunt, an old woman bent and wizened, retaining, remarkably, the sparks of independence and total consciousness. In my mind, I try to see the two of them walking daily, unarmed, past scores of hostile Arabs – the ladies, out for their constitutional.

Finally, I sit across the table from her, a hundred questions spinning through my mind. What kind of stuff is this woman made of? Just the mechanics of daily living with a perpetual threat a few yards from the door. How do you live with it? An urge to see a movie, a friend, a play means running that gauntlet of the unthinkable. Automatic rifles at ready, the view of Arab houses, Arab windows, Arab lights, faces, trucks, dust, dirt, day after day. Small children drifting off into Arab streets, riots, threats, betrayal by your own government. How, exactly, is it done?

But she is not one to field a hard volley. She begins slowly, bereft of make-up, a kerchief haphazardly covering her head. Middle-aged, with the edges of fatigue peeking through a razor-sharp intellect. She starts by sketching a portrait of herself as a woman living on the soil that had been granted to her thousands of years ago. But before she can unfold, her great aunt begins to cry out; her blood pressure dropping quickly, dangerously. Neighbors appearing, the phone ringing, calls to an ambulance for oxygen, a doctor. The apartment, suddenly, is seething.

I watch Miriam Levinger through all of it; carrying the weight of the years, the decisions, the difficulties, the small emergencies and the big ones; capable, persistent, giving life as, I suppose, the matriarchs had done so many centuries ago. “I’m sorry,” she says to me as the ambulance comes. I wish we’d gotten further.”

I watch them roll her great aunt out to the ambulance, past the soldiers, the flak vests, the M-16’s, the lights of the Arab houses spreading out before us. Miriam getting into the vehicle with that fragile, indestructible old lady, and, standing there, as the ambulance rushed away, I had this odd, impossible flash – that my her great aunt, in some inexplicable way, had shielded me from some brutality on that road to Hebron, shifting the flow of dark forces; drawing them into her own brittle bones.

“Hebron is mine,” was the clear, unrelenting message of those two women. Suddenly, there was no retreat, no evading the claim they had on my heart – as though the resonance they emitted was convergent with the matriarchs who lay there in that heavily contested soil.

My years of living in a vortex of art, media, and the accepted inversion of all values had left me with a full range of heroes and anti-heroes. But none, perhaps, that had touched me as deeply as those two women leading simple, decent lives in the eye of a storm.

Martin Hoffman grew up in Vermont, did post grad work at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill, crossed part of Afghanistan on horseback, ate yogurt in Teheran, studied at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, served in an antiaircraft unit in the IDF, freelanced for various magazines like Hadassah, the Jerusalem Post, Ami. He lives in Jerusalem and wrote for Hadassah Magazine at the time this article was written. The article was never published.

Editor’s note: Miriam Levinger was sentenced to a prison term later on for her vocal opposition to the police and unruly behavior in court. This editor, at the time the Chairman of Emunah Israel, reached the President of Israel and had the sentence lightenend to a period of public service, in light of her being the mother of 11 children, one of whom was recovering from a serious burn. From then on, Rabbi Levinger would tell groups of Emunah women visiting Hebron that it is their chairperson who kept his wife out of prison.

At the time, Emunah of America, among other things, funded a playroom for the chldren of Hebron in Beit Avraham Avinu, while Emunah Israel held a board meeting in Hebron at which it made the women of Hebron honorary members. (R.S.)

Tags: Martin Hoffman Rabbi Moshe Levinger Hebron

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