I’d left the hot, dirty city in order to find peace and inspiration in the remote woods of northern Minnesota. A record number of young black men (97 and still counting) had been killed on the streets of Oakland during the past few months. There were drive-by shootings, drug deals gone askew, heavy gang activities.
The bloodshed barely affected me. I read about it in the newspaper. It was occurring just a few blocks from my home, in a city that claimed to be the most integrated in America.
In Minnesota I found the harmony I was looking for: a quiet house on acres of rich farmland, set beside an unspoiled river that flowed softly into the brown Mississippi, rolling south toward far-off New Orleans.
There I lived with poets and composers, storytellers and sculptors, a woman from New Mexico, a couple from Wisconsin, a prolific writer of children’s books and an elderly Israeli holocaust survivor/freedom fighter/retired chemical engineer/woodworker/writer, and his adoring wife.
Together and apart we ate and slept, talked and worked, creating art in the daylight hours, arguing politics, religion and sports at night.
Indian summer turned to fall and during our stay the war in Iraq continued although our country’s leaders said otherwise. The poets, composer and children’s book writer were alarmed. The Israelis, Ephraim and Shoshana, saw it differently.
Late at night while others slept, I read Ephraim’s memoir, tales of torture and pain, entire families killed in death camps, clandestine operations to immigrate to Palestine, more war, more death, more blood spilled.
I came to know Ephraim and Shoshana through his words. A brief marriage ceremony on a desolate kibbutz, the wedding night spent on a hard cot in a tent, the next day back to work in the fields. “It was a difficult life,” Shoshana told me. “But we were young and strong and without our families. The war in Europe had ended. There were many possibilities; so many new and interesting opportunities.”
I took the shuttle bus into town each morning with Ephraim. We swam at the YMCA and shared coffee at a nearby café. The bus driver flirted with him. “Please,” he said. “You are killing me with your compliments. Would it not be better if you took a pistol or knife and killed me in this way instead of with kindness?” The bus driver laughed and took another long drag from her carcinogenic cigarette.
As time went on, rising at 6:30 in the morning for our swim became easier. I was awake when he gently knocked on my door, warning me that I had just 10 minutes before the bus arrived. Sometimes I was already up, and when I told him I was ready, he said, “That is called involuntary indoctrination. You are becoming a very good soldier.”
The references to war and death continued. A restaurant was bombed near their home in Haifa. They worried about their children and grandchildren in Israel, the day-to-day errands and activities that had become life threatening.
As I helped Ephraim edit his manuscript, memories of a life lived in fear and intolerance, I asked him, “Do you ever want to move from Israel, to someplace safer and less violent?” He looked at me with patient annoyance. “Israel is our only home. We cannot leave and we never will.”
Shoshana told me that she believed God had sent me to help her husband with his manuscript. I disagreed. I told her that God and I didn’t have such a great relationship and that I was certain he wasn’t interested in sending me as his representative anywhere or to anyone. Shoshana said that I should not think too much about it. She had a wonderful relationship to God.
While in Minnesota I came to an unexpected conclusion: God hadn’t dispatched me to the Israelis, but he had sent them to me. I went back to my home in Oakland, renewed, reinvented, re-awakened to the world around me. I returned to the big city, where now the headlines loudly proclaimed, “Murder rate at an all-time high. 98 dead in Oakland.”