Saturday, September 27, 2014

Family Honor

One beautiful Spring day as Jacob’s grandfather and Jacob were walking home from the market,  a person wearing a black and white keffiyeh jumped from a car, and stepped in front of them.  The rapid firing sent his grandfather’s blood and brains across Jacobs face, and over the open loaves of bread and bagels displayed in racks outside Moshen’s bakery.  For nearly six months after the assassination, the boy could not talk except to scream out for help during nightmares.   His mother, Miriam, curled against him each night.  Still,  the sweat of his body turned the sheets wet, even in the winter, and his limbs would jerk and twitch in his uneven slumber.

When the trembling subsided, Miriam would return to her own bedroom.  One evening, Jacob did not ask for his mother again.  Slowly, he regained his voice, but his words were few.  Not once did he mention that day with his grandfather. 

When he turned sixteen, he enrolled in the military academy, wearing his uniform to school even on days when it was not required.  The local commander, a war veteran unable to conceal a limp, noted the boy’s intensity. One day he approached Jacob with a proposition:  “Train with the men.  See if you belong.  Maybe make a career as an officer.”   When the a visiting general saw the boy going through drills, he questioned the commander, who said, “It is good for the men to see this boy.  He shames them with his devotion.”

“Why must you do this?” his mother asked two years later when he joined the officer training program.

“To honor our family,” he said.  Secretly, he wanted do what peace prevented.

“Has violence worked for us?” she said.

“Sometimes they give us no choice.”

“And sometimes we act as if killing is the only choice.”

“I’m joining.”   

“Why not be on call, like the other men?”  

“I’m needed now.”

When she saw he would not relent, her voice softened.  “You must not die.”

“I will not die.”

Frustrated, she asked again, "Why must you do this?”

“Grandfather,” he said. 

“Your grandfather? Your grandfather died praying for peace.”  

He could not argue this point with her.  She heard the old man’s last words, while he, as a small boy, was kept from the deathwatch.  

Not knowing what to say, he blurted, “You dishonor him.”

His words pressed against her like spikes, leaving her breathless.  Each anniversary of her father’s death, she lit a single candle at his picture in the living room, watching the flame sputter past midnight until the last play of shadows on the walls was overcome by day.  For each of 24 years, the candle goaded Jacob until it was lit again.

Seeing his mother’s mouth agape at his accusation, and her eyes unblinking, he searched for an argument: 

“He was a warrior, and prepared to die,” he said

“He loved peace. He wanted an end to this.”

“There can be no end until they are crushed.”


“The Palestinians.”

“All of them?”  

“Every one of them.”  His voice turned shrill and his words shot like bullets in her direction.

“Your neighbors?  The people you work with?”

She walked to him, as if he were still a boy, and placed her hands on his shoulders. He was nearly a foot taller than she.

“Our enemy is not among us, but within us,” she said.

He pulled away. He left quickly for the military compound.  His mother’s talk was crazy.  Had she lost sight of the dangers?  The enemy would never go away.  He knew force was the only answer.

He finally relaxed as he drove past the guard gate into the compound.  He felt most at home in these barracks, away from his mother’s misguided softness.  Had she forgotten how grandfather died because of such wishful thinking?

The old man had joined a peace group whose motto was ‘One people, One peace.”  The group formed a neighborhood committee covering ten blocks of Jerusalem.  Five Israelis and five Palestinian neighbors crossed invisible barriers to draft a manifesto of peace based on the Koran and the Pentatuch.  The manifesto, signed by the ten on behalf of 30,000 living within their neighborhood, came to the attention of the world media.

But the manifesto irritated both Likud and the PLO.  Agreeing on nothing else, the old enemies discovered a common goal in discrediting the Peace group’s hold on the world imagination. 

One morning, after reading the words of the profit Isaiah, Miriam rested in the deep cushions of her father’s old worn chair.  She loved the way she could sink into it, nearly invisible in its massive padded arms.  In it, she separated from her fears.  She had turned 55, her father’s age when he was killed.  Sitting in his chair all these years later, she heard the cooing of morning doves in the garden, and prayed for her son’s safety.  She did this every morning, as if the trees were minarets, and the doves were the Muezzin.

Late in the afternoon, she listened to news reports of angry young Palestinians gathering in the streets only a few blocks away.  She turned off the reports.  Still, she heard the faint sounds of protest, and police sirens through her garden window.   The phone rang.  It was Rosha, her childhood friend, asking her to join several other women to go to the site of the protest to make a statement for peace.  Miriam was tired, but to honor her father’s memory, she joined her old friends.

“Why do you do this?” Jacob argued with his mother over the years.  “Besides, no one listens to you.”

And it was true.  She knew it was true.  She knew it was true each time an Israeli or Palestinian sneered at her, or crushed a pamphlet in his fist, making sure she saw him toss it away. 

When the women arrived they stood at a the edge of chanting young Palestinians holding signs that read “Death to the Zionists,”  “Exterminate the Jews,”  “Israel kills Palestinian children,” “Israel killed my father,” “Death to the Invaders,” “Death to America.”  The women stood at the corner, and raised their signs:  “Peace, Not War,”  “Justice for All,” “Stop the Killing,” “Let Us Live Together.”

“Go home you old fools,” one the youths screamed.  “Get out of here!” another young man ordered, his voice and eyes wild at seeing Israeli troops gathering in battle position at the end of the street.

One protestor, his eyes red from tear gas, his clothing smeared with sweat and grime,  accused the women of being Israeli stooges placed in the crowd for the sake of the press.   “Liars” he yelled in their faces.  He pushed Miriam hard, causing her to fall.  Then he turned to join the others in the crowd yelling threats and throwing rocks at the Israeli soldiers who stood with shields behind a barricade.  Someone in the crowd fired shots at the helicopters circling overhead.

Helicopter Squadron Commander Jacob Moskovitz hovered in one of 3 choppers circling over the demonstrators.  When one of his pilots radioed that his craft was under fire,  a smile so quickly transformed Colonel Moskovitz's grim expression that it surprised even him.  He looked around to see if any of his men had witnessed the change.  With a voice bordering on exultation, he commanded his gunners to commence firing.

In the melee below, Miriam tried to run, but she could only hobble.   “Save us Jehovah,” she prayed, but the words turned to stone in her mouth as she watched a rip of bullets spread across the mass of people jammed into the street.  A swath of beautiful young Palestinian men collapsed as if an invisible knife had sliced through the crowd.

On her son's command,  a gunner from a second helicopter opened another slash of killing.  The crazed men around Miriam shoved or pulled her out of the way.  She saw the head of a man explode just in front of her, his brains like curdled milk spotting her face.  Something like a steel rod thrust into her back, slamming her into her into the arms of one of the protestors.   “Why are you looking at me that way?” she wanted to ask the young man.  For a few seconds, he stared at her like a frightened child, his face reminding her of Jacob’s so many years ago when she cradled him against the nightmares.  She looked down to see a circle of blood at the center of her chest spread like an enlarging eye until it covered her breasts.  In the last seconds of consciousness, she looked up to see her son’s unshielded face as he yelled orders to his men. 

The news the next day reported there were five Israeli casualties inexplicably mixed into the crowd.  When Colonel Jacob Moskovitz saw his mother’s name on the list of dead, he insisted there was a mistake.  He knew that going to the morgue, he would confirm that someone had wrongly placed his mother’s name on the body of some Palestinian mother.   But when he pulled the sheet from the body to see his mother’s blood drained face, a roar rose in his chest, filling the room until it ended with a rhythmic moaning.  Several of his men, standing outside rushed into the room to see their commander curled on the floor, gasping for air.   

It was as if he were a child again the day a terrorist assassinated his grandfather.  He could not speak. 

“You must call the rabbi,” his commander told him. “It is disrespectful to delay the funeral.”

Jacob only stared into his mother’s garden.  Seeing what needed to be done, the commander ordered one of his men to fetch the rabbi, and designated two of his lieutenants to act as “Shomers,” the traditional watchmen who stay with the body until the burial. 

“We need to call the Chevra Kadisha to do the ritual of purification,” one of his mother’s friends whispered in his ear.  He turned toward her, his face void of expression.   When he did not answer, she patted him on the arm.  “I will see that they are called,” she whispered again.    

On the day of the funeral, Jacob dressed in his formal military uniform.  He looked at the black ribbon one of the women had given him, then threw it aside.  He went to his mother’s sewing kit, found the scissors, and cut a wide tear across the left side of his coat.   He remembered the day his mother explained the custom when his grandfather died.  “When a parent dies, the child is to wear a black ribbon or cut a tear in his clothing on the left side, to show the tear between life and death.” 

“What Psalm would do you want me to read at the burial?” the Rabbi asked him.  Staring into the Rabbi’s thick spectacles, Jacob walked over to his mother’s copy of the Torah.  He opened it to a place she had marked.  He remembered her reading it to him so long ago to help him fall asleep.  Turning to the rabbi, he pointed to the Psalm, then let himself sink into his grandfather’s chair.

The rabbi read the words:

Declare me innocent, O Lord,
            For I have acted with integrity;
            I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Put me on trial, Lord, and cross-examine me.
            Test my motives and affections
For I am constantly aware of your unfailing love,
            And I have lived according to your truth.

For the seven days of Shiva, the traditional period of mourning, Jacob was granted leave of duty.  He spent the days sitting in his mother’s garden, listening for the cooing of doves in the morning, and again, as the day ended.  Each day, he cut the tear in his uniform a bit longer.  By the seventh day, the coat was un-wearable.

On the eighth day, he handed his commander his request for immediate discharge. 

“And if I do not grant it?” the commander asked. 

“Then I will not serve.”

  “You will be dishonorably discharged. I can also have your court martialed for dereliction of duty.”

“Yes, you can do that.”

“Think of how that will dishonor your family.”

“I have thought of that all my life.”

The Commander’s voice lowered as he realized Jacob’s resolve.  “Your thinking is clouded by your grief.  The military is your family.  How can you leave it?”

“Like this,” Jacob answered.  He saluted, turned sharply, and walked out the door.

 (c) FXP 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


I am a man riveted,
1930s style, as nailed to an iron cross
By Rosie herself.
Who would have thought
A cliché could carry so much fat
As, “love’s labor lost,”
Or “Better to have loved and lost”
Etc.  Pile on the Platitudes.

When the heart leads,
Children will follow,
Dying young, as all fools do,
To think that love prevails.
For many have died in that illusion.
Yet those surviving, wizen gray,
Do not appeal to me,
Neither does their naysaying,
Excite a lingering hope.

Rather, the blush of romance,
The supple supplement
Of dreams
Of things that transmute
From drear to divine:
These things give me life,
Raise me from the grave
Of daily routines, to believe
Love matters, justice prevails, honor lives,
Somewhere, far away from here.  

An Open Letter to My Online Writing Workshop Leader

Wow DeAnna.  34 weeks, one week at a time.  One of the "subtext" lessons of this journey has been the power of consistency.  We hiked this mountain alone except for the first few weeks.  I want to say "thank you" for keeping your commitment to reach the summit.  

The Pitch:  I did the exercise.  Maass's book adds value mostly because of the exercises.  No ivory tower theory for him:  "Just do the work," he seems to say.  I appreciate that he goes right to the point:  a pitch is a business communication.  Keep it brief, simple, and incorporate a hook.  He gives an example of how a 173 word pitch produced a six figure advance.
Here's the unedited product of the timed 5 minute exercise:

This is a "near speculative fiction" piece about  a U.S. corporate executive living in L.A., who is on a journey to claim her destiny as a reformer of the Catholic Church.   She will become the first woman pope ["Momma Magdalena I:].  She must confront corrupt Church officials and the Mafia.  Her election as "Momma," occurs as the Church is about to implode under its own weight of corruption.  To save it, a desperate College of Cardinals elects its arch-enemy and primary reformist:  Celeste Ryan.
 [about 96 words]

As Maass suggests, I'll revisit this "pitch" in a few days, and see if i can cut it to 50 words.  

Many thanks again DeAnna.  I too wish you "Happy Writing," but sign off, as I always do, with "Keep Writing!"  

Frank Pray.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014


I’ve read that readers love interesting characters who defy the usual patterns because its a safe way to experience some rather strange behaviors without any of the risks. The emotional charge is there, but the consequences are controlled. Close the book, turn out the lights, and sleep in the security of your routines. But, another chapter of the unpredictable awaits. This is what we offer: safe excitement, free drama, easy thrills. That’s OK. The alternative is even more dismal.
The twist and reversal are so powerful. It’s one of those thrills we all love (except when they happen to us). My friend Solange builds her stories around these reversals. She lives for them, and I suppose so do her readers. Not a bad technique: develop a pattern of upsetting the patterns.
Umm, could you reverse the expectation that a suspected twist was sure to come? [Could you put a twist on the twist, like doing a "double twist" in Olympic Skating?] Now that would be challenge. I just saw “Now You See Me” on HBO. It is the story of one “bait and switch” after another, built layer upon layer by the mind-games of a group of magicians. The group is ultimately outmatched by the Master Magician who has spent many years setting them all up for the biggest reversal of all: he, who has played the role of the dimwitted cop chasing the criminal magicians is himself the ultimate criminal, and has played everyone. I found it a very satisfying experience, and I suspect it was the “ah hah” of each turn in the plot that made it work for me.
Now, to do that. Let’s see, where are my skates?