By STEVE WENICK
It was on the sands of Rishon LeTzion beach where I first met the rag-tag group of characters, which I later affectionately dubbed The Beach Brigade. Their favorite strand of sand is not far from other seaside enclaves which stretch along the coastline of Israel like a string of seashells. Its closest neighbor is Bat Yam, which is not far from Jaffa, which is not far from Tel Aviv. In Israel, there is no place far from anyplace.
The Beach Brigade consists of a collection of aging pensioners who on a daily basis wash up onto a stretch of sand and come to rest at the steps of Kaldaron cafe. But as I was soon to discover they were more than just a bunch of old acquaintances whiling away their time nursing glasses of botz (Turkish coffee) while nonchalantly multi-tasking successive games of Shesh Pesh (Backgammon). Quite to the contrary, they used their time attempting to solve the world’s most intractable problems.
The first of the regulars I met was Peretz, also known as the sheriff of the beach. He is hard not to notice. Peretz is short, stocky, powerfully built and in his mid-sixties. He sports a thin gray mustache and a kitschy bright blue Speedo bathing suit. I assume that
he also took note of my almost daily visits to the beach, wearing a modest pair of baggy khaki Bermuda’s, because after a week he approached me and with hands outstretched he offered me a handful of salted nuts. He explained that his hobby was roasting and salting a variety of nuts. Peretz speaks no English and I speak a ‘passable’ Hebrew. Nevertheless, with the aid of some verbal gymnastics and creative sign language, we were able to communicate increasingly well over the ensuing weeks.
What I gleaned from our conversations was that Peretz was born and raised in Israel as were his parents, grandparents and great grandparents. He once owned a small furniture factory which he built from the ground up. He said he worked six days a week for forty years, never took a vacation and the only time he took off was to fight in three wars. When I asked him about the wars he chose not to talk about them. I did not press him on the subject.
Tzvika, another of the regulars, is a retired army career officer, whose bearing is testament to that fact. He is a quiet man with the serious expression of one who has seen more than one should have to endure. Although Tzvika is conversant in English and has quite a sense of humor he chooses to remain reticent and pensive. When asked if he fought in any of the wars, he nods silently wearing the somber expression of someone who had spent too much time on the battlefield. Throughout my meetings with Tzvika he seemed bent on protecting his emotional vulnerability by wearing a suit of psychological armor. It was as if he wanted to shield himself from memories that assaulted his sensibilities.
Not so Sam. A Yiddish proverb best describes him, “Vos iz oyfn kop, iz oyf dertsung” (What is on his mind is on his tongue). He is like an open book. During the first moments I met him, I learned that he married an American girl from Northeast Philadelphia where he lived for 18 years, had three grown children, and was fluent in English, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian and Arabic. With all those languages at his command, it is no wonder that he is a non-stop talker. After completing his service in the IDF Air Force he worked for El Al as a pilot and then for TWA as a flight engineer. Sam is knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, from religion to engineering, from politics to philosophy. He is opinionated to a fault. At times he might be wrong, but never in doubt.
There are many others in the Beach Brigade. Men and women like Yisrael, Yizrael, Orna, Bracha, Shelly, Eli, Avraham, Shumshum, Chaim, and Arie. Their daily ebb and flow is as predictable as the tide. But their days did not always follow a scripted routine. There were years when it was vital that they employed the improvisational skills demanded of survivors, pioneers and heroes.
While none of them were generals, none of them were members of the Knesset, none of them were ambassadors or world renowned scholars nonetheless their daily actions were heroic in a nation of heroes. Viewed through the prism of time they may appear somewhat worn down and a tad bent by the burdens of a difficult life, nevertheless they have endured, persevered and thrived. They stand as national icons among a nation of icons and although there are no monuments erected in their honor, the Land of Israel stands as a living tribute to them.
Inevitably the names of that rag-tag group of characters; I affectionately dubbed the Beach Brigade, will be forgotten and lost in the wake of the passage of time. Their sand-prints will follow them to the water’s edge but no farther for the ever changing sea will cover the sand-trail they leave behind. I will miss them. But I am grateful for having had the good fortune of having made their acquaintance. And thanks to all the Beach Brigades throughout Israel, after two thousand years the hopes, dreams and prayers of a dislodged and dispersed people have been fulfilled and the Promised Land once again has become a land of promise.