Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Making of Invention-a-Minute Ben

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Making of Invention-a-Minute Ben

Article excerpt

January 10, 2001

8:00 AM

Another morning off winter's block of stationery-skim-milk light, brown branches, a rock or two showing through the snow, sameness. It's up to me to break the monotony.

I've made up my mind to go through my father's letters, which till now I've skimmed, without satisfaction, looking for mentions of my mother and myself. These letters were given to me by Israeli friends of my father's, the Shimshons. Shimshon knew my father from a commando unit, the "Negev Beasts," who were known for their unkempt beards, Australian slouch hats, and motorcycles. They would roar into a kibbutz, hog the communal shower, raise the galvanized roof of the dining hall with gnashing and guzzling, remount their bikes and zigzag off into the dunes, leaving behind military intelligence and other kinds of gossip. My father was never a Beast, they weren't his style, but they had visited his kibbutz. Shimshon, when I met him, was a mute carpenter who looked with habitual tenderness upon his wife, who handed me these letters tearfully, cheerfully, and without ceasing to chatter for several hours. For years after our meeting, I'd get overseas calls from Mrs. Shimshon.

"When are you coming? You promised! Last time we spoke you promised. You must take a vacation. You must visit. Nonsense. I'll pay! We were his khevrei!" Mrs. Shimshon would cry.

"The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman," wrote an American author; Israel began in the hearts of the khevrei. Without this slang term and its implications, Israel is no more comprehensible than the United States minus the word "liberty." There is no translation. Here are nine English equivalents and the reasons they don't work:

1) Group: too generic.

2) Gang: too gangsterish.

3) Clan: too feudal.

4) Tribe: too archaic.

5) Band: too nomadic.

6) Society: too vague.

7) Collective: true only of the kibbutz, the logical extreme of khevrei-ness.

8) Pack: too zoological.

9) Y'all: not a noun.

The way an American veteran feels about his platoon-buddies, extended to include both sexes, every aspect of life, and one's entire lifetime. That might come close. The people you played with; went to school with; served in the army with; married among; had kids at the same time as; went into business or the university with; criticized; consoled; dealt with and felt with, and could not imagine yourself, the insides of your head, without. Khevrei.

A singular noun that takes plural verb forms.

Here is my father's first brittle blue aerogramme, crammed up to the shiny strips of its adhesive with his round Hebrew script. He wrote from Leominster, a village in northern Massachusetts, where he'd landed a job at the factory of Harry Cohen, a board member of the Weizmann Institute of Science. My father's physicist friends had gotten him this job, because Israel, a tiny socialist state without a dime to its name, in the worst depression of its history, was no place for technological entrepreneurs-and he didn't want to make weapons anymore.

I Bentov

50 West St.

Leominster, Mass.

10.30.54

Shalom Khevrei!

Nu, finally I can settle down and write. I'm here in a pretty little town, 24,000 inhabitants distributed over a vast territory. The houses are colorful and made of wood. The churches are old and made of brick. Everything here is designed for the convenience of people, unbelievable. For instance: you buy yellow cheese, open the package, and it's sliced already. Bread too. It's a beautiful job of slicing and saves much time.... You buy hot coffee/tea, put it in your pocket and go. All fluids are obtainable in sealed containers to take with you and not worry about spillage. Generally, there's a huge waste of paper You can't buy a handkerchief, instead they make handkerchieves out of very soft paper that you use once and throw away. …

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