The Department of Lost Objects 

A Report from Jerusalem

We all lose things in transit, almost involuntarily, as if Kleenex, keys, and library cards were feathers to be molted. I do it famously and furiously; I shed diaries and disks, contact lenses, entire bicycles; my mind holds the image of each and every lunch box left behind.

I knew I would rack up significant losses when I went to Israel, and I did--especially considering how little I had with me. I lost my laptop computer, the only thing I owned worth more than $50. And I lost my story, which I didn't know you could lose.

My story had never been told to me in a systematic fashion, but from an early age I gathered that it went something like this: I was a white American, solidly middle class; the important remnants of my grandparents' foreignness--language, gait, custom--had been purged, and the rest could be gotten out of. I was Jewish, but not in the way that Jewish people had been. I wasn't hated, chased, taunted; had never been and would never be. I wasn't fastidious about food, cleanliness, kitchens, books. I moved easily through the world with tremendous freedom, without fear, without a passport announcing I was Jewish, and returned to an apartment building that wasn't in a ghetto, that didn't smell from cooking, but rather from brand-new carpets.

This is the same story that the grandchildren of the taxi driver with the turban or the Mexican housekeeper will have. It is the one correct story in America, and although the beginnings are wildly diverse, the story is not about the beginning. It is about how we became free of the beginning: how the squalor, song, bloodshed, and blood ties of the other land dissolve. They don't dissolve into the enormous ocean dividing America from everywhere else; they don't dissolve from pure contact with the untouched continent; they don't dissolve just from a failure of memory. As I understood the story, they dissolve because they aren't real, or at least because they aren't as real as America's own particular violence, beauty, and rhythm. They were lost to prove they hadn't meant that much in the first place. They were lost to make way for a better, more universal beginning.

I'm not sure which went first, the computer or the story, but I can tell you exactly where I lost the computer. I left it on a bus, an unimpressive move anywhere, but especially bad in Israel, where any package that appears to be unattended is a chafetz chashuv, a suspicious object, and assumed to be a bomb. If it can't be claimed--and quick--police take it away and detonate it.

The noise is terrifyingly loud for a procedure that is a standard part of civic life, and for months every time I heard it I would become inconsolable, and find myself sobbing behind a tree on a busy street, blowing snot into my T-shirt. The first time it happened, I had just arrived and was in a big hurry to get back to my hostel before it was locked up at midnight. The hostel was a religious place for the great unwashed American Jewish population, and you could stay for free as long as you attended their religious classes once in a while and made it back by midnight (no sexy disco dancing).

When I got to the entrance of the Old City five minutes before midnight, it was surrounded by police cars and army officers. Whatever--I was late! I barreled through the blockade single-mindedly, and several furious police officers and a taxi driver waiting for the gate to reopen grabbed me, screaming in highly agitated Hebrew. Someone had just found a kerosene container left by one of the Arab guys who sells corn. One of the army officers, who was probably younger than me, said gently and earnestly, "It could be a bomb and it could go off, and you can't just run into it. This is serious."

Everyone shifted around by the gate, pacing, waiting for an explosion. The Old City, the walled container of Jerusalem's boundaries, circa 1100, is a deep, hot blister in the valley between the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion, and Mount Scopus. The rock where Muhammad ascended to heaven, the patch of ground where Jesus was resurrected, and the remaining stone wall of the first Jewish Temple where God dwelt stand just meters apart, indifferent to each other and to the thundering throngs whose sweaty hands, chaste, needy kisses, and tears coat them in a briny grime. Everyone wants a little piece of the Old City--within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 10 different Christian groups battle for turf, none willing to relinquish any space for an emergency exit. At night the Old City is dead, dark, and dangerous, and the energy that during the day often transforms tourists into believers or patients in the local mental hospital, lies still over everything like a hot blanket.

When the explosion came from behind the darkened walls, it jarred me completely. It was so much louder than anything I had ever heard; it rocked through the concrete, through the soles of my feet, and I could feel it reverberating in my jaw and chest. Everyone dispersed immediately--it had been just a canister of kerosene after all--cars were restarted, radios blasting, and people moved through the reopened entrance. I just stood there at the gate, as though I were at attention after some ceremonial shot had been fired.

My great-grandparents moved through Russia, Lithuania, and Poland before they came to America. They were running from pogroms. They got out before the Holocaust, and the town they were from became the second largest ghetto in Poland after they left. In my family no one mentions or mourns this. It is over. It ended in Europe before it ever happened to us. It is buried there safely with all the other Jewish graves and memorials.

But the story in which being Jewish is deadly serious and of daily importance isn't over in Israel. Here people's passports still say they are Jewish, and with their Jewish passports there are lots of places they can't go. Everyone serves in the army. People in their early '20s, like me, lose their whole social group. They lose fingers. I went on a date with a man who had spent the last year as an assassin. Who knows what he lost. In Israel, being Jewish (or for that matter, being Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, or Arab) still matters in a way that we are told in America it shouldn't matter; it still binds in a way America refuses--often admirably--to let it bind. The elderly Jewish people here, who move their stocky, barrel frames and speak in ways that are so much like my grandparents, who stop me in the street and tell me to tie my shoelaces, have handwritten numbers sloppily tattooed on their forearms. How to tell them or their children that nationalism is not trendy, that identity is fluid, that ethnicity is mutable and irrelevant in a postmodern era? Or looking at them, still hoarding food in their hotel rooms on vacation, how to tell oneself?

And if the story to this point--Abraham's restless, prolonged searching, Moses' choked, lonely leadership, the bloodletting at the Temple, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Chassidic revival--is just baggage to drop on the way to acquiring liberty and happiness, how then to explain the deep, visceral sense of home I found navigating through cities and texts I had never seen before? How to explain the nearly electric connection to waterfalls, ancient chants, plots of land, strangers? What if the prayer book's claim that something was "sealed in my flesh"--the claim that America undermines relentlessly, nobly--rings true?

Anyway, as soon as I realized I was missing my computer I knew it was a prime target for exploding, and I ran back to the bus station. The bus was of course not where I left it, but I thought I could find it--I remembered that the driver had a giant yellow flag that said "Moshiach" (Messiah) by his seat. I ran up and down the aisles of buses, peering in and asking in a panicked Hebrew, "Where is the bus with Moshiach?" They are used to this kind of tourist here; in fact he is usually wearing a purple robe and playing a harp. No one paid much attention to me--they were in a hurry to close for Shabbat--and I got sent home until Sunday.

There were many theories at the bus station about where my particular bus had gone after it stopped in Jerusalem, and I spent a lot of time calling various remote bus stations to see if the computer had turned up. I also paid repeated visits to the mystical "Department of Lost Objects" at the bus station, an improbably tranquil oasis in a country where the checkout counter at the supermarket is a bit like roller derby. I think I was the only person who visited the department, and I usually found an old bearded man named Zion entertaining his friends with backgammon or stories when I arrived. Due to our language barrier, he would show me all the empty computer bags he had, his dewy eyes beaming warmly at me. I eventually gave up hope and bought a new computer.

That was back in November. Then, not long ago, a man from a Christian television network in Michigan called my mom in New York City. Seemed he had been in a different lost and found, and an Israeli police officer had told him to call my home phone number when he got back to the States. Although the other lost and found was in the center of the souk, a chaotic market with narrow cobblestone walkways slick with mashed fruit and trash, it had the same surreal, peaceful feeling as the Department of Lost Objects. Three old religious guys sat in an empty, airy room. In desperately bad Hebrew, I tried to engage them in my story. Unmoved by the surprise ending with the Christian TV producer, they replied repeatedly that "everything here is property of medinat yisrael [the nation of Israel]." I thought this was brilliant--a lost and found that exists to tell people they can't have their lost things back, that the lost things have moved on! We went back and forth until I said "Texas Instruments," the brand of my computer. Like magic, a middle-aged woman with an enormous blond coiffure and a fetchingly tight police uniform emerged and took me to a back room, where she removed my computer bag from a locker. She was incredibly proud of herself, although her entire effort to return the computer had been to tell a stranger to call me when he got to the United States, nine months after she had first received it.

"Here," she said proudly. "This is your disk, no? And this is your pens, no?" We went back and forth until she opened the computer bag. I screamed. Beneath the screen there were little holes with wires poking out from them. The computer didn't sit straight; the keys were hanging off the plastic things that are apparently underneath keys. "Ohhh," the officer said, "it must have been exploded." Not to worry, she told me, the government of Israel reimburses people whose items get detonated. She filled out a form for me to take to a bureau in the prime minister's office, where I was assigned to an English-speaking insurance agent.

His tiny office was lined with binders full of damage reports and a bottle of kosher wine. In the space between the bookshelves and the wall, he had crammed a series of prints of famous art works featuring serene women: Gauguin, Rembrandt, etc. My chair was back-to-back with his secretary's. He apologized for keeping me waiting; he was busy because during the Israeli pullout from Lebanon, Hezbollah had lobbed a bunch of Katyusha rockets over the border into Kiryat Shemona, a sort of battered desert Detroit that gets bombed every time the Middle East's political Jenga shifts a bit. "See what happened to your computer?" the agent asked gently. "In Kiryat Shemona that happened to people's houses and stores."

He told me to estimate the damage; I told him I couldn't; he asked me to bring him an estimate for the damage from anyone--even a friend who knew about computers--and said he would do the appropriate paperwork. He showed almost no interest in seeing the computer, although he repeatedly expressed great sympathy for my hardship. I asked him about Kiryat Shemona. He said after the recent bombs, the government sent 30 insurance agents down for a blitz weekend. They divided the town up and each surveyed a few blocks for damages.

"Was it hard?" I asked.

"To be honest," he said, "it is not quite right. Often the people say more damage was done and we look and see it wasn't done, but they say it's bad, and then on our reports we say it's worse than it is. We go to the house and they already have three TV sets from the last set of Katyushas."

"You mean you say the damage is worse than it is so people can get new stuff?" I asked. He nodded. This seemed like a fairly inappropriate statement for an insurance agent to make to a client.

"Is that the right thing to do?" I asked.

He said, "The one night I stayed there I didn't sleep at all. I couldn't wait to leave. Rockets were going off over my head. They live with that." He shrugged.

I took my computer to a repairman to get an estimate. When I told him it had been a chafetz chashuv, he cradled it sympathetically in his enormous hands. He sat with it, gently prodding the small plastic pieces into place with a tiny pocketknife. He put it back together again, and when he was done there were just two keys that didn't fit. Everything worked. He didn't charge me, but said for $400 he could send it somewhere to get the last two keys fixed. I said that wouldn't be necessary, but he still wrote me an estimate for $400 and told me to give it to the insurance agent if I wanted to.

Israel isn't really at war, and hasn't been since 1973. The Katyushas that Lebanon sends over and the bombs that go off on buses don't cause death counts that are anything like those during a war. So why is there a government bureau to reimburse people for damages incurred at war? And what is it doing trying to pay me $400 for two broken keys?

The violence here--a thousand Israeli lives and tens of thousands of Arab lives during the 18-year occupation in Lebanon--is not exactly war, but unlike the violence in the United States, there is no distance from it, literal or imagined. In a tiny country where the enemies' settlements are scattered throughout the land and on all sides, it is hard to feel safe. The enemies look a lot like the citizens, and are close enough for their scars--missing eyes from rubber bullets, furious tempers--to remain in full view. Israel cannot, for all its military strength, provide the illusion of distance. There is no ocean, there is no West, no vast emptiness to choke memory and history with. The air is flush with memory and history--sometimes like the ecstatic honeysuckle fragrance of a spring balls-out blooming; sometimes like the inescapable stink of a paper mill that announces its presence in a town long before you see its hulking frame.

In America, the beginning of the story has a moment on the ground, like a dead leaf, a nostalgic moment touched with color, but then it is gone. In Israel, it just lies there in plain view. Nothing seeps into the ground; nothing disappears. Looking around, it is obvious that the process of life, of creating new things, cannot happen without loss. To understand this too fully is crippling. We need the fiction that life and death are separate, that loss is accidental, in order to keep going on with it.

When the fiction fails, when the threat of death comes too close, jostling everyone badly and in ways that cannot be fixed, what can be done? Someone can come around and suggest an imperfect remedy, announce in a report that all that was shaken was a window pane or a television set. That things may have been shaken in ways that are not visible, not apprehensible to insurance agents, is a given.

In the Bible, the Hebrew word for redemption is the same as "to buy back," to regain possession of something you once owned; it is often used in the Bible to describe the act of repurchasing land that had previously been in one's family. These days, Webster's says to redeem is also to compensate, to pay the penalty for something; to make amends for it, to atone. It may be that whatever is lost or damaged in transit, whatever disappears into that violent, airless vacuum at the moment of birthing, will be given back to us. Our precious wallets, sweaters, and wristwatches will be rediscovered, nearly intact, like ghosts, changed only a bit by their silent adventures. And the pulse of stories thought to have dissolved into the earth will flicker and lurch again through the veins.

Originally published in the webzine openletters.net.

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