A Crocodile in the Kinneret
By Sharon Forman
In July of 1993, a ten-foot long crocodile patrolled the clear waters of the Kinneret, Israel’s Sea of Galilee. That was the same month that Naomi Singer escaped from the frozen faced prostitutes who loitered outside the post office a block away from her New York City apartment and the screeching Subway 6 Train, which reminded her of a winter coat with a sticky zipper in the vicinity of 51st Street. If she plopped down on her bed and comforter, a profusion of exploding pink roses, peonies, and magnolias, she could almost touch the computer on her desk as well as her chest of drawers containing dainty cashmere sweaters with mother of pearl buttons. The squeaking exhaust fan of a restaurant rattled outside of her window, and when the Third Avenue horns quieted, she could hear the machine’s rhythmic whining. Naomi closed her eyes and tried to pretend the grumbling came from a whirling disc of a merry-go-round. The grating sound of metal rubbing against metal singed her ears, delicate like her pastel pink sweater.
That summer, she fled to a sublet amid the winding streets of Jerusalem, adorned in white hibiscus and matching white-stoned buildings. Her goal was to complete research for her graduate school thesis, but she may have spent more time taking long, circuitous walks around streets named for medieval rabbis and failing to launch a fairy tale romance with an Israeli friend of a friend. His Iraqi Jewish roots dated back to the Babylonian exile, and he looked like a cross between a movie star and a secret service agent with short hair and dark glasses that reflected the brilliant Jerusalem sunlight. A medic during his mandatory army service, he shared little, other than that, about his life before university. He was already a bit over thirty, a few years older than she was, and had wise, dark eyes and a Hebrew name containing an “r” sound that her clumsy mouth could not replicate without revealing its made-in-America lineage. The letter resh should express a dash of a “w” or even a sprinkle of “l.” Her highbrow college Hebrew professor once described the sound as a “uvular fricative” or “alveolar trill,” which she scribbled in a notebook like a dutiful disciple. Since her first days in Hebrew school, she had thought resh resembled the sound one makes when saying the letter “r” and simultaneously drinking a glass of water. A strong English student, she wondered if she had managed to misspell three of the four scholarly terms: uvular, fricative, and alveolar. When she looked up the vocabulary words later, all were correct except for “trill,” which she had scribbled quickly and neglected the final “l.”
Almost eight years after this first university Hebrew class, Naomi still could not manage to send her tongue to the back of her throat when she uttered the resh sound and intoned the name “Ronen.” Her ears were agile, and she could discern that she was off musically. This must be what life was like for self-conscious stammerers, stutterers, and lispers. To hear the botched syllables, but fail to twirl the tongue to match the correct note. She avoided saying his name to protect her dignity.
That month, she studied in the air conditioned library at Hebrew University and covered her dark, wavy hair with henna paste to try on a red wildness that clashed with her docile midwestern spirit. She and the Israeli made plans to see each other a few times and ate at restaurants where waitresses openly flirted with him. Once, they drove the stretch of the country between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in peaceful silence. From a mile away, you could peg her as an American in her Emory University tee-shirts, pale yellow shorts and white tennis shoes. His demeanor was puzzling. It was not evident where he was from or where he wanted to go.
That summer, the Israeli newspapers obsessed about a mysterious crocodile that tourists swore they spotted in the country’s beloved, harp-shaped, freshwater lake. “I feel sorry for him,” Naomi confided to this quiet man, as she sipped chilled carbonated apple juice, and he drank the blackest, muddiest coffee at a cafe overlooking the Hinnom Valley, where corrupt and ancient kings may or may not have sacrificed their children to idols. “Even with all of the fish and turtles to snack on in the Kinneret, the crocodile is an alien. No parents, little siblings, or friends. He just swims by himself, wondering how he got there, and snaps at the St. Peter’s fish.”
Hebrew-speaking Naomi was a different version of her American alter ego. In Hebrew, she was bolder, more spontaneous, more direct. Rough, guttural consonants drove out the American cadences of her everyday, English elocution. Her brain did not have time to filter and contemplate every word as feelings became translated into sounds. In spite of her highlighted summer hair and a newly adopted candid demeanor, she was still more sentimental than hard-edged. “You have a wide heart,” her non-boyfriend boyfriend announced in his perfect English. She blushed, her face mimicking the Jerusalem sunset.
In the evening, four days before she returned to New York, strolling, they paused to gaze at the stars from a promenade that smelled of mint and olive trees. Standing behind her, he wrapped his arms around her waist. For several minutes, they stood as one four-legged human growing out of the desert. At last she turned around, and they kissed. A group of teenage tourists stared and giggled, and she did not care. Her heart sank because sometimes a kiss is just punctuation and not a new sentence.
It was time to go home. Back in New York, Naomi worked on her thesis and translated poems by writers from the socialist Zionist youth movement in the early 1900s. One poet, in particular, Anda Amir Pinkerfeld, spoke of Israel in historical, romantic prose and described love, loss, and the raging fires of the soul. A twentieth century Israeli children’s book author, she crafted hundreds of poems which revealed a throbbing inner life. Naomi’s conversations with Anda, who had died a dozen years before Naomi had read any of her poems, were almost always one-sided. It might have been the squeaking hum of that miserable fan from the restaurant beneath her apartment window, but one day she was sure that Anda was prodding her to bare her feelings.
“Stop being a baby. Tell this man what you dream. Tell him that you might be happy in Israel. Could you not? I, a girl from Galicia, found joy in the wilderness there. And now you can buy American breakfast cereal at the stores. You will not subsist only on oranges, cucumbers, and melons. Perhaps you could live there for some time. Talk to him.” Naomi imagined the deceased subject of her research speaking to her like an Israeli grandmother, pushing her words out of her diaphragm from another sphere of existence.
Giddy with the frothy romanticism of her thesis subject, Naomi mailed a Hebrew letter to Ronen. That was safe. It would have been mortifying to see the words in English. She felt a connection to him and admired his gentle spirit and subtle humor and intelligence. She missed seeing him. They had only met a few months before in Israel, but she felt a closeness and a sense of calm and peace with him. He should feel no pressure to reciprocate. She just wanted to let him know. That was all.
He called her on the phone to thank her for the touching note. Back in the 1990s, the phones had cords. His feelings choked in the long distance wires. Romance was not discussed.
Yet on a business trip to New York City two months later, he arranged to see her in that noise- riddled studio apartment. She baked chocolate chip cookies from scratch in her closet-sized kitchen. These desserts did not have the strange flavor of the ones she had attempted in Jerusalem, with the sticky brown sugar that smelled like oranges. As he bit on a cookie with his soft lips, he commented that perhaps she was eating more than a few of them since returning from Israel, where her limbs had been tanned and toned from rambling walks. Here, she only ran to the subway and buses. She’d tried the university gym one time, but had caught a cold two days later. Not good for my health, she’d determined. Maybe her small apartment made her look fat.
“You should find a boyfriend,” he instructed. “A nice American boyfriend.” He narrowed the field of suitable partners and disqualified himself before taking a Granny Smith apple for the road.
He vanished like the Middle Eastern cowboy that she’d imagined him to be. Laconic, deep, pure, lonely, brave. For all she knew, he flew off on a magic carpet eating tomato stews, date honey, and apricot jam. He was a beautiful, romantic, somewhat sad figure who thought she was soft and now just the slightest bit chubby. Maybe he hated the way she pronounced his name.
A month later, she met another Jewish man. This one had symphonies of words and grand, loving gestures. He encouraged dessert consumption and knew how to alter the margins on her thesis when the words would not appear the way she intended on the page. But they argued about religion and Jewish law, and whether or not it was kosher to carry an emergency twenty-dollar bill in one’s pocket on the Sabbath, even if one had no intention of spending it. With him, there was a right way and everything else was a deviation from that correct practice. She could not spend a lifetime filled with guilt over breaking rules that were not meaningful to her. They were the same religion, but orange and green, like the Irish Rovers’ song about bickering Protestants and Catholics. She liked her Judaism the way she liked her sweaters: not pinching.
Her grandmother once told her about the “Jew’s bone” at the top of the spine. It was supposed to be indestructible, this first cervical vertebra under the brain cradling a seed of resurrection. But this was not the calcified container of her faith. Judaism was in her mother’s hands, preparing soup, serving sweet challah, and lighting candles for the Sabbath before it slipped, in purple and calm. Judaism was not an unbreakable bone, but a soft hand.
A thoughtful, decent person who lives with an allergy sufferer does not bring in foods that might trigger red, itchy hives, watery eyes, or in the worst case, anaphylaxis. It’s like that with religious practice, too. The person with the stricter requirements usually gets to determine what foods and practices win out. According to her new boyfriend, these commandments belonged to all Jews, but they were his selections, not hers.
Sometimes the end of a relationship hinges on cinematic, dramatic acts of betrayal and division. Their union soured in quiet ways. She refused to eat broccoli with the florets hacked off because of the possible presence of an invisible, but unkosher insect. On the Sabbath, she flickered on and off the lights in a dark room. They broke one another’s hearts until they parted for good, and only then their arguing ceased.
She saw that Israeli man one last time. Almost a year later, he was in New York City for business and she had a fifteen-minute window to connect with him. They walked a few blocks together and exchanged a quick, platonic hug. It was almost summer again. Months before, she had turned in her thesis, and Anda’s fanciful vision of the universe no longer swayed Naomi’s view of reality. The red henna had long faded from her hair. She wore a dress the muted color of cream of wheat.
She met her husband just a few years later, and perhaps Anda would approve of the way he calms her unsteady heart. They raise their children and navigate what Jewish laws to observe and which to set aside. There are Sabbaths when she prays in synagogue and her husband drives the child to swim meets. They attempt to untangle their Jewish legacy, perhaps not between orange and green, but among all the shades of blue.
There are times when the unheroic aspects of her day-to-day life leave her numb. She stands at the automatic checkout at the grocery store and types in the four-digit price-look-up codes for fruit and vegetables. Sometimes she catches herself attempting to discern the mystical messages embedded in the gematria of a banana, 4011 or a plum, 3174. What other Hebrew words share the numerical value of a grapefruit?
Three decades after her summer in Israel, she reads an article about an alligator lounging in a swimming pool in Florida. She pauses and remembers that lone, lost crocodile who may yet continue to navigate the warm, clear lake into which the Jordan River flows. A crocodile can live for seventy years, even up to a hundred with good luck. He could be alive, spooked by occasional shelling noises from the north, monitoring the shores’ campfires through his three eyelids. Maybe the crocodile is not a boy, after all, but a female. She lives a quiet, happy existence hissing at the turtles and gazing at the migrating pelicans on their way to Africa.