Based on true story of Israeli trapped in Israel, unable to be with woman he loves
She looked like a princess. My princess, he thought. Her deep blue eyes were shining like the ocean as she walked to the car. Her wedding dress billowed in the wind, the train flowing as far as his eyes could see.
Ben gazed at her. She was the most beautiful bride a man could want. His throat constricted as his emotions overflowed. Ben took her hand as she got into the car, ready and excited at her upcoming wedding day, her perfect day. He couldn’t take his eyes from her. She was a vision of beauty, her blonde hair in striking contrast to her deep golden skin. Ben felt his throat tighten as he gazed at her. He gave her hand a small, encouraging squeeze. She did look amazing – the perfect bride. Only she wasn’t his. Ben was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of loss. She should have been mine he thought as he lifted her smooth bronzed hand to his lips and gently kissed it. Catherine looked at him and smiled. Ben smiled back, determinedly pushing his earlier thoughts from his head. She was to be his friend’s wife, and knowing how much they loved each other, Ben genuinely wished them all the best.
Catherine felt more beautiful than she felt it possible. She was so glad that she’d stuck to that wretched potato diet for three months. She had lost over two stone, and now looked radiant, tanned and toned. Although this was her second marriage, Catherine felt as jittery as any first-time bride. Her first marriage, to an abusive, drunken gambler, had been a nightmare. The day she got her divorce, at the tender young age of twenty, she had sworn off men. Now, seven years later, all that was behind her and John was a distant memory. After seven long years as a young divorcee, at twenty-seven she was ready to go through it all again. Catherine’s thoughts turned to Danny, her soon-to-be husband. He was everything she’d ever dreamt of and thought she’d never find.
Tall, dark and handsome, just like the romantic novels said. Well, not so tall, barely two inches over her, but definitely dark and handsome. Two out of three wasn’t so bad. Danny was a Sabra – what was commonly known as a first generation Israeli. She looked around her in awe. The sky was so blue, it merged with the Mediterranean Sea, and the only distinguishing feature was the sparkle of diamonds on the clear blue water. . She had fallen in love with Israel during her first visit, just a year ago. Despite the warnings of family, she had spontaneously booked a holiday to Eilat. From the moment she had stepped off the plane, she had been blind to the danger around her, oblivious to everything but the beauty of the country. That holiday, she fell in love with Israel, and had met and fallen in love with Danny.
‘If my life doesn’t become interesting by Easter, then we are going somewhere exotic and dangerous’ she had told her best friend Sarah. True enough, Israel wasn’t very safe, the Intifada had been running for one year, and she remembered lying on the floor of the coach as she and Sarah had travelled to visit Jerusalem. The guide had vehemently denied that there were any troubles, saying it was more of a precaution. They had took him at his word, and subsequently on arrival had gone walking around Jerusalem, not realising when they had lost their way, that they had been in the heart of the West Bank. The guide had certainly come clean after that escapade. How they had laughed, realising that Israel was exactly as the news had portrayed it. Since then, on each of her visits, she had got used to the sound of scud missiles, and the constant warnings blacking out the TV scheduling. It was too dangerous for her to move here, she wasn’t accustomed to the ways and the culture, but it would be like a second home with regular trips.
But today, none of that mattered. By nightfall, she would be Danny’s wife, and all the troubles seemed a million miles away. Catherine was sitting in a white Mercedes, with Sarah, Ben and Danny. As was customary, the driver of the car was bestowed with this honour similar to the best man status in England. Today the honour belonged to Ben.
Catherine walked to the car, excited, glowing with her six week tan, and walking down the cobbled streets of Acco. The markets were buzzing with traders pushing their trinkets and bargains. She could hear the jumble of words which made no sense to her. It all seemed so exotic. To be getting married in Israel, to her dream man, was just unbelievable. Weddings were performed so differently here. Danny had arranged a short boat trip around the bay so that the photographer could get some good shots. She wouldn’t be married until after the sun went down, and they would travel around the city to get more photos during the day. She was so glad she had insisted that Ben was to be the driver today. It wouldn’t have been the same without him. Ever since she had been visiting Israel, Ben had been the person she wanted to see first after arriving. He had been so kind to her, helping her to understand Hebrew, and protecting her from the inevitable jokes people would play on someone who couldn’t understand the language. She had a soft spot for him. She couldn’t understand why Danny hadn’t been keen to have him as their driver. After all, it was an honour to be asked and they were good friends. But she had insisted, and Danny had agreed reluctantly.
Now in the bright hot sun, she was about to spend the most wonderful day of her life. Her mind wandered to her family, back in England. She had been distraught that no one was coming. Of course, her father, a devout Catholic, had regarded her divorce as nothing short of catastrophic. Her decision to marry a Jew, however, had been the last straw. In a screaming confrontation, he had practically denounced her as his daughter and had refused to allow anyone to come to her wedding. She was hurt by his bigotry, and then remembered her own ‘religious conversion’.
Danny had insisted that the condition of marriage was for her to be Jewish. She had been shocked at the request. But customary to her nature, she hadn’t challenged it. The question was how was she going to become Jewish? She didn’t believe in her Catholic upbringing, preferring the more spiritual new age philosophy. ‘I guess as I don’t believe in very much, it won’t be that hard.’ she had told Danny. How wrong she was. After many false starts and a lot of refusals, she had begun to lose hope that she could ever convert, and had no patience with the plan for two years study. ‘Hey, Catherine.’ Danny had called her excitedly. ‘Guess what! My parents have found a place where you can do it! It’s on the black market, and we have to pay big bucks, but you will definitely get an Orthodox conversion in less than three weeks. You will do it won’t you?’ Catherine looked at Danny, noticing how earnest he was. How could she refuse, though inside she was beginning to have some doubts about the whole thing. ‘Come on Catherine, please, do it for me, it doesn’t mean much to you, but it is the most important thing you could ever do for me.’ She had agreed, not knowing just what an ordeal Danny was going to put her through.
The conversion had indeed been expensive. Over three thousand pounds, it had involved a group of rabbis and scholars who were all in on the scam. The irony was that she had to play the role of convertor, and whilst everyone played their part convincingly, she couldn’t help thinking how hypocritical it had all been. The religion change had really affected her. She had deliberately walked away from one orthodox religion and had been so naïve to believe that this change would be a breeze. Her lawyer Eli had recommended many books to her, and she had spent more than two months reading them, and then had to finish things in Israel for the last three weeks of the process. Day after day, she had sat in Eli’s office, as he lectured her in Hebrew, but she hadn’t understood a word. Danny had been so patient through that time, translating for her, though his own explanations had seemed much shorter. ‘How is it that Eli speaks for thirty minutes, and you only give me two sentences?’ she had asked once. ‘Because, believe me, you don’t need to know everything. I know you would walk out on the whole thing if you heard the things he is saying.’ Danny had replied.
Day after day she had studied, and night after night she had cried, searching deeply within herself for comfort and solace. But she had found none. She had been foolish enough to think that the change from one orthodox religion to another would be mostly a cosmetic one. But it wasn’t. This was more serious than she had thought. She wanted to believe in her heart what she was learning, but knew deep down she was only doing it because of her love for Danny.
Danny’s mother was always there with her words of encouragement. ‘It’ll soon be over, and then you can forget everything Catherine. It’s just for the paper. No paper, no marriage. Don’t fret so much.’ Catherine had wanted to please, so had persevered. The final day had been the most awful of her life. Eli’s last words the night before had been ‘Eat as much pork as you can tonight, for it will be your last.’ Then he was seated beside her in a room full of scholars and rabbis who tested her every move. They offered her an array of food and drink, knowing she had to pray for each item. She couldn’t remember one word in her head that she had been taught, and her ribs were aching from the constant nudges from Eli’s elbow urging her on. She had to renounce her past, her Christian friends, and also her whole life thus far as she had lived it. The hypocrisy had cut deep. To have to say that she would never speak to her family again had almost finished her. She had been so closing to telling all these people exactly what she thought of them.
She was finally converted when she was immersed in water in the migva – a special bath which was used for women every month, and also the day before their wedding. The migva was for symbolic cleaning, similar to a Christian baptism. Then finally it was all over.
Danny, who had bitten his fingernails to the quick, raced towards her as she left the building, his eyes moist. He swung her into the air, saying ‘Congratulations! You are Jewish. From now on you will believe everything as I do, and keep all the special days as a Jew.’ Catherine had stopped in her tracks as if someone had slapped her. ‘In your dreams,’ she had screamed. ‘I did it, but don’t expect me to believe it. How could I? I don’t understand Hebrew; I don’t know what I agreed to. But I have done my part, leave me alone to get over this.’
The summer breeze brought Catherine back to the present. She shook off the memory, focusing on the purpose of the whole sorry mess, which was to marry Danny and live happily ever after. Her two best friends had come as stand ins for her parents, and whilst she had a huge tinge of sadness about this, nothing was going to spoil her special day. This marriage had to work; she couldn’t afford to get this one wrong. After all, she was twenty seven and surely she knew what she was doing this time.
But Catherine had no idea of the nightmare she was to experience over fourteen years later in this country of her dreams.
‘Come on Joseph,’ said Catherine to her son. ‘You can handle this. I know it is in Israel, but after all a bar mitzvah is very important. And you know your Dad really wants to do it there. You will be thirteen, it’s a big occasion.’
‘But, mum, I can’t speak the language,’ said Joseph, ‘and I don’t have any friends there. This is going to be awful.’
Catherine sighed, thinking just how awful this really was going to be. But not just for Joseph. She and Danny had been divorced for six years now, and this was one of those trips she really didn’t want to make. To have to stay with her ex mother-in-law of all people, with all that potential hostility to come. Nevertheless, she had promised, and although the trip filled her with foreboding, she thought that perhaps it would still give her the break she so desperately needed.
Work had been difficult. It wasn’t easy keeping two children, especially with no maintenance coming her way, or at least in terms of the real expense of running a family it felt like no maintenance. If only her father-in-law was still alive. He had died so tragically last year, literally dropping dead in the street of a heart attack. Yet he had been her only advocate since the divorce, and had supported her with love and affection on the one and only trip she had made to Israel since. Now what was she to do? How would she cope? Maria, Danny’s sister had always hated her, and Catherine knew there would be trouble. Maria had been cold to Catherine from the first moment they had met. She had not been happy with her brother marrying a foreigner, as she had put it. Perhaps she could just stay out of the way. This was an unthinkable situation. Why had she agreed to this? As usual, Danny had used his persuasive charm and insisted that Joseph had to be with the ‘family’ for this very special occasion.
Plus, what could she offer in exchange? She couldn’t have organised anything in England. She didn’t even believe in the Jewish religion. The conversion had not made a believer out of her, though she had always respected Danny’s wishes about the children being Jewish. She hadn’t interfered, even though she loathed the whole thing. So, the children were Jewish, and now Joseph would have to go through a ritual she just didn’t have the heart for.
It was bad enough to have to fight my own father for twenty years over my lack of faith, thought Catherine, and then to leave the church, find my own way and then end up back in the same bigoted situation. She could hardly believe it. Here was her beautiful Joseph, thirteen years old and living in the same situation as she had been. Scared to let down his father, not sure of what he himself believed, but still trying to do the right thing for everyone.
She looked at the speech Joseph was practising, in very stilted Hebrew. Danny had written it phonetically as no one could read the squiggly writing and his earnest attention to the task made her almost want to cry. How could he get through this? On the other hand, Jake, her feisty seven year old, was very excited to be going. He was just like Danny. He looked the same, and had a strong Mediterranean temperament. He could be so stubborn, and fearless and arrogant.
Her mind went back to fourteen years before, on that beautiful day of her wedding in Acco. It had been perfect; she was looking her best, having shed the two stone to fit into the wedding dress. I was a princess, she thought, a real princess, waiting for my prince to take me home and live happily ever after.
How could it have gone so wrong? What happened? She drifted again to the worst year she could remember, when Danny and she had gone through the break up. She remembered the screaming and the shouting, the fighting, and the way it had all seemed insane at the time. Wasn’t I loveable enough? She pondered. Did I work too hard? She guessed that being away all the time and working full time as a company Director hadn’t helped. But then again, she’d had to hold everything together. The divorce was so expensive. She had remembered the fight she had to go through to keep the children. Danny had wanted custody, and had intended to take them to live in Israel. As a last resort, she had threatened to spill the beans about the illegal religion change, which meant the children wouldn’t be Jewish. At that point, Danny had conceded, and she had then begun the long battle of working, childcare, and being the perfect mother and the ambitious business woman. She had lost the house through the fight, as the cost of the divorce was her home. Having to start all over again had been almost too much to bear. Don’t go there, she thought, it’s all in the past. This is one quick trip and then we will be home again. Ten days, she could do ten days. It won’t be so bad. She shook the thought out of her head, and concentrated on packing.
Ben awoke, and remembered that today Catherine was arriving with the children for Joseph’s bar mitzvah. It will be good to see her again, he thought. He realised that every single time she visited he rushed round to the house just so he could say hello. They hadn’t talked much, if at all for over four years, and he wondered why she hadn’t been over recently. Whenever he asked Danny, he just said that she was busy. But he remembered that she had always visited so often. Maybe the marriage wasn’t working so well. He didn’t really want to ask, but had a feeling that perhaps things were not so great. Otherwise why would Danny be seeing those other women. It didn’t make sense. If she were my wife, he thought, I wouldn’t be running around anywhere. But Ben was never one to interfere and Danny didn’t offer any information, so he decided to leave it. Ben had got married one year after Catherine, and had lived to regret it from the first day. How could he have been so stupid? As was normally the case in this close knit community, the pressure from both sets of parents had been the turning point. The irony was that he and Zita weren’t even dating seriously when their wedding was arranged. He remembered that night with a heavy heart.
It had been his birthday, and he and his army pals had organised a night out. “Got a new girl for you Ben.” said one of his friends. Ben had spent the afternoon resting in the cool of his room in preparation for what he hoped would be a night to remember. Indeed it had been. Just as he was getting ready to go out, he called in to see his parents. He lived in a basement flat beneath their house, which was very convenient. What man wouldn’t enjoy the convenience of having his washing and ironing done, plus meals cooked, and the freedom of a rent free apartment! Nevertheless as he walked in he was greeted by the sight of his parents, Zita and her parents sitting at a table absolutely heaving with food. ‘Hi Honey.’ Zita smiled. Ben was shocked. He hadn’t seen much of her over the past two months, perhaps only once or twice. He wondered what this could be all about. ‘Listen son, it is time you settled down, and we have all decided that this is the right thing. You two have been seeing each other for six years now, so you need to make an honest woman of her.’ his mother began. ‘Oh no, that’s not going to happen.’ Ben recoiled. ‘I am going out right now and want nothing to do with this. If she wants to get married, she can find someone else.’
He had looked at Zita, wondering what he had ever seen in her. They were like chalk and cheese. Ben was spontaneous, and athletic. He loved the countryside, preferring to walk in the Golan Heights, the beautiful mountain area in the North of the country, than walking around shopping centres on aimless trips. Zita hated the open air, the beach, the heat in the summer. She spent hours watching TV, talking on the phone and generally pampering herself. She couldn’t bear to break a nail. But Ben had one major weakness in himself. He just didn’t really know how to say no without the fear of hurting people. It seemed preferable to keep his feelings to himself, and he rarely expressed his emotions. After fighting in the war in Lebanon at the tender, young age of eighteen, he had returned a changed man. All around him, things seemed so superficial. Worrying about hair and makeup seemed to him to be an aberration after his experiences. But he also knew that not everyone had seen the awful things he had had to bear, so tried to be tolerant.
But inside himself, he knew that all he wanted was to leave Israel, go to Europe to some peace and quiet, and find a culture which suited his nature. He was a gentle man in the real sense of the word. So true to form, he had foregone his night out, and sat in a dreamlike state as his life was mapped out for him. But since then times had changed a lot, and Ben was much less able to tolerate his life. His marriage was over in all but name, and a string of meaningless affairs had left him unfulfilled and still hungry for a change in his life.
Ben and Danny went for a quick drink. ‘I bet you can’t wait for Catherine and the kids to get here for the Bar Mitzvah,’ he said. ‘Well, at least the kids,’ said Danny, ‘Didn’t I tell you, Catherine and I have been divorced for six years now.’
Ben stared at Danny in disbelief. Six years! His heart was pounding as he took the information in. That meant she was divorced the last time she visited. Yet when they went to Danny’s brother’s wedding, they seemed so good together. Could this be true? As Danny started to tell the story, Ben’s mind wandered to remember the beautiful young bride, so full of hope and love. Then it wandered to his own wedding, just before then, and wondered how he could have made such a terrible mistake. The wedding from hell, and subsequently the marriage made in hell. Why couldn’t he have stayed away all those times he had left? He cursed his weakness, that others called strength. The trouble with Israel, he thought, is that you marry the family. And when there is an argument, the whole family dive in and make it their business. I hate this culture, I hate this country. I want the peace, the quiet. I am sick of the tension, and the people outside think it’s about the Arab Israeli conflict. Ha! What a joke! It is the Israeli/Israeli conflict. No peace, just shouting and talking, food, money, dog eat dog. I don’t think I can stand it for much longer. I don’t know what will kill me first, overworking, my dead marriage or the bombs.
Danny was finishing his sordid tale of the divorce, explaining that he’d hidden the news from all but the immediate family. He had certainly done a good job. Ben had no inkling of this. He listened with half an ear, hardly believing what he was being told. This really is true, his friend was divorced. She was free. She was really going to need a friend on this trip. This was going to be difficult for all of them.
Catherine was waiting with the children for Danny to arrive at Ben Gurion. She had a flashback to the first time he had waited for her at the airport, arriving there before she had taken off from England, so enthusiastic was he not to miss her. How things change, she sighed, as he turned up thirty minutes late. How is it that when we love that one special person, we don’t notice anyone else around us, and just live and focus on that one. But when the love has been used up and turns to indifference, we are just another passenger to pick up at the airport.
She took a deep breath, her heart doing somersaults with anxiety, and tried to settle the butterflies in her stomach as Danny strolled up, looking confident and relaxed, back in Israel, the country he never stopped talking about. OK. Here goes, she thought, ten days living with my in-laws and my ex-husband. What a deal. Only in Israel can the family be such an important thing, even when they are completely broken. One thing for sure, I am going to be fed a plate of guilt every day, with a dash of betrayal, add salt and pepper and there is a dish to swallow.
She felt sick in her stomach as they made the long drive from Tel Aviv to Acco, wondering just where she would get the strength to handle this with some dignity and discretion. She knew her mother-in-law would not welcome her with open arms, especially after such a bitter divorce, but she hoped, totally without real belief, that things would be civil.
She felt Joseph’s tension. He really wasn’t looking forward to the event, expecting to see hundreds of people he didn’t know, and to be the centre of attention. Catherine thought back to her wedding day, when she too had been in the same situation. Six hundred people shaking her hand and saying Mazal Tov. She hadn’t understood a word, but had smiled graciously, whilst Danny had never left her side, taking care of her and making her a part of her own wedding. Of course, the woman doesn’t speak in the wedding. But for sure the women here never stop talking afterwards, she thought. One thing she had noticed about the Jewish Israeli culture was that the woman was the absolute boss in the house. That’s obviously why all the men are so aggressive at work, she thought, at least they have somewhere to find their masculinity again.
The nearer they drove to Acco, the more Catherine had to keep breathing the panic down from her chest. She thought of her dear brother Phil, who had jokingly said she should find another man, perhaps in Israel. My God! She thought, after six years of being alone, heaven forbid she should go down that path again, least of all with another Israeli. That was one promise she was definitely going to keep for herself.
The welcome was lukewarm to Catherine. The kids were showered with kisses. Catherine had always been a little afraid of her mother in law Dinah, whose stern eyes and hard mouth which when smiling could warm up her whole face. But today when she smiled, it never reached her eyes. Oh God, I am in for a long ten days Catherine thought. She decided to go straight to bed, pleading tiredness from the flight, and hoped the sleep would come.
‘Mum, mum, Ben is here,’ shouted Joseph; ‘he is waiting to say hello.’ Catherine just couldn’t face going back through the house. ‘Tell him I will see him tomorrow,’ she called. ‘No mum, he wants to see you now,’ Joseph insisted.
Catherine threw on some pyjamas and went from the bedroom, a concrete building in the back garden. It’s so good I am isolated from the main house, she thought, at least that is one piece of good news.
Ben just had to see her. He had come straight round, and was bursting with anticipation to see how she was. She came out, looking tired, and the stress was showing in her eyes. His heart leapt. She was as beautiful as ever, she hadn’t aged a bit in his eyes, and he was pleased she was here. Though, he knew deep down that she was in for a terrible time. He had the strongest urge to save her from the ordeal, little knowing that by doing this; he was going to put her life into total chaos.