I had heard that Ein Karem is a beautiful neighborhood. John the Baptist was born there. So I took a pen in my pocket, and left my book because I didn’t really want to read in a cafe; if it was that boring I’d just come back and read in the hostel. I got on the brand new Jerusalem light rail and sat next to a pretty young girl who had all the indifference of Israeli women. But I could tell she really did want to talk to me. She asked me a little about myself, told me she had been to Montenegro, a country which is only about five years old, and mentioned that being an Israeli is hard, stressful, with worry about outside attacks and inside attacks…Perhaps that’s why most of the women don’t have patience for bullshit; they have bigger worries. She got off before me, for her grandmother’s house.
At Mt. Herzel, I was feeling a bit under the weather, and asked another attractive girl who seemed quite interested in me and my plans, how to get to Ein Karem. The 27 bus, she said. And I ran and got on without paying, “blackriding,” without a problem. I asked another pretty girl on the bus where it was and she said last stop. The last stop was a hospital/mall. I wondered whether I had to walk through the mall’s security checkpoint to get into the nice neighborhood. I walked upstairs, and after asking another pretty girl working in a candy shop where Ein Karem was; she said she didn’t know; I asked a man who said I had to get on a different bus back to Mt. Herzel, and then get on the 28. I went downstairs, got on the same 27 back, and the driver dropped me off a quarter of the way there, telling me to walk down the hill and into the valley, and there would be Ein Karem.
Ah, elusive Ein Karem! How difficult it was to find you, and how heavenly once I arrived! I descended a steep road, the while smelling the pink and white flowering almond trees. Yes, this was nice. I got into town still feeling odd; my equilibrium was off; I was getting sick. I walked past the clearly expensive cafes, flirted with the idea of treating myself to a fifteen dollar meal, and decided I needed something healthy, energy of any kind. Juice! I walked into the juice bar and a bearded, grizzled man followed me.”Juice,” I said, unsure of how much English he’d know. “Orange or pomegranate?” “Pomegranate. How much is it?”
“Expensive, no?” (Adding no at the end of a rhetorical question is one of my recent travel affectations. It makes me sound so skeptical, very worldly.)
“Fruit is expensive.” I nodded, took my juice and felt the rush.
“Where you from?”
“Brooklyn, New York.”
“Where your family from?”
“That doesn’t help. What city?”
“I don’t know.”
“You and I, we look very similar, except for the lips. I have a picture of me when I was your age. I looked just like you.” I didn’t want to mention the nose, or he would start asking where my mother was from, and if he found out I wasn’t actually Jewish he would give me that deprecating look that says, why are you really here? So I nodded and drank my purple elixir. “I feel a connection with you. You want to go to my place? I have to herd my goats.”
I nodded again. This was the kind of thing you couldn’t get on a tour. And yet as I sat in his truck I wondered if he weren’t going to try to rape me. I could fend for myself.
We drove a couple of minutes and parked, walked past more almond trees and came upon a small hut. “I live here with others,” he pointed, “This is my place.” We walked into a small room with a heavy smell of fire. The wood oven was on one side in front of a recessed hundred gallon fish tank, filled with water, empty of fish. On the other side lay a mattress on the floor below a window. He took a bag filled with oregano; he had stopped smoking tobacco after 22 years. “Sometimes I mix it with other things,” and he pulled out a little nugget of weed, crumbled it expertly and rolled it tight, making sure to finger every crumb off the ledge on which the tank sat, and into the spliff.
Around the back of the hut was a dark shed. As he reached in the door to undo the lock came the bleating of the goats from the dark recess. I laughed. He finally unlocked the animals, and they spilled out, five, ten, eighteen of them. He lit the oregano-spliff. “Boy,” he called, and led the animals down rocky terraces to graze on the olive trees. His dog, Dagma, a graying husky-German shepherd mix waddled behind the herd with me. I took a picture of him running with the goats. He turned around to see me putting my camera away.
Some of the “capricorns,” as he called them, had horns, some didn’t, some were blond, some brown, some black; some had little tabs of fat hanging from their necks, all had long floppy ears. He explained to me when we stopped for the animals to eat that these were young females, four months old. One large male, oblivious of the smaller females, often tripped over them and ran into them. “It is not right for the male to be with the females. They are babies. All he wants is to rape and eat. It is not right, but I bring him anyway.” In another few months the females would be in heat, and produce milk. Eating diverse vegetation allows them to produce excellent milk, which when drunk fresh, alleviates mouth abscesses.
On we walked, up and down the rock terraces, stopping every hundred yards for the animals to graze. The shepherd spoke of time, how it is divided into fractions, but how it is simple here and it flows on equally balanced. “How long have you been shepherding?” “Five years. This is my third herd. Once they were stolen by Arabs in the night. They are very silent.”
We began to descend. A woman sat ahead, her hair wrapped in a shawl, her plain face staring out across the valley. I wondered when the shepherd had last had sex. When we came up to her, the shepherd spoke to her, told her I was from Taglit. She was pregnant and her small breasts sagged loosely. She seemed well into her thirties. We nodded at each other. They continued talking, he blocking me from her view. At the end of their conversation, I could feel a tension spring from the shepherd’s masculinity, or perhaps it was him determining how best to leave. “The wife of a friend,” he said, after we had walked past.
“If there are people ahead on the trail, it is important not to let the goats be distracted. If their attention wanders, some will get lost, others will stray.” Sure enough there were tourists, young blond girls with their parents. They pointed, laughed at the Arcadian sight, took pictures. The shepherd ran ahead, Dagma and I following up behind. We settled at a plot of grass where the goats continued to eat. The tourists followed us, kept their distance and snapped pictures. “I do not like to be photographed,” he said, coloring. “Now they understand, without me speaking, to stay away. If they come closer, I go up there, you can stay here.” Sure enough, the tourists came closer and I followed him up the hill. The tourists finally began to understand, left in disappointment. He pointed at Arabs working on a house yonder. “Now it is time for picture,” he said. “Why?” “So they don’t get ideas.”
We ran up a street. A car slowed behind us. I turned. The driver made “What the hell?” hand gestures. We ran to the top of the street, past more tourists, then back onto the olive-treed terraces, down, down, and onto another grassy area. He sat. I sat. The goats ate.
“They eat so fast because they regurgitate later at night.” Up above was Dagma. “Boooy,” he called. She came to us, like a tractor, he said with a smile, and lay between us, tired old dog. The goats shifted from grazing behind us, to in front of us. One strayed, and came over to smell me. He snapped at it. I was scared it was going to poop on me, continually pooping these capricorns. He grabbed it and held it tight as it urinated and pooped very near his leg. “MA-EHH.” “Shh cutie,” he petted, kissing its face, “You are getting chubby. I am waiting for one of them to become the leader.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“They are all my favorite. Dagma envies the capricorns.” He let the goat go, patting its side as it bleated. He looked Dagma in the eyes, reassuring her, patted her head. “Thin beasts, the capricorn. Thick beasts: bull, cow, horse. Thin beasts, goat. Beautiful animals. He smiled with pride as we reclined in the grass, under the olive branches. Stray poppies sprung up around us. “It is good to relax,” he said.
We soon sat up to return to the hut. The shepherd herded the goats back in their cage, gave them some feed. “Now it is time to see the mule.” We descended another two terraces and came upon a large mule chained to a tree. He unchained it, and we ran with it across a terrace. But the mule was being cheeky. It could eat whenever it wanted, and here it was trying to pull grass for snacks when we came for its daily workout. We stopped at a new spot for the mule. On the ground, a rug. He folded it, said, “Now I will show him who’s boss.” And I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the mule as he began to whip him with the large rug, like a high school boy in a locker room. He ran back and forth, whipping the mule. Then chaining him, he said, “If you do not show him who is boss, he can kill you. A kick from him can break a man’s leg, and he will run away. He must know I am his master, then we can trust each other.” He petted the mule, loosened his chain. “He needs a brushing.”
We walked back to the hut, gathering firewood on the way, and dropped it at his doorstep. Then we went into the kitchen, where his sister and two men sat. They greeted me, and I introduced myself. I still didn’t know the shepherd’s name. He put on some water to boil, added a green sprig in each glass and we walked out to his cement patio and sat to watch the view. We drank our tea in silence. I heard him set his empty mug down. I could feel him watching me. It seemed little had changed in this valley since John the Baptist’s time, except for the whoosh of the cars circling up the road just ahead.
When I finished my tea, I looked at him. He began, “Judaism is true. Islam is a preparation for the Messiah, it is a groundwork for when He comes. Christianity is a lie.” The bells began to toll. “Look.” I turned to the golden dome with the high crosses. “What does that mean?”
“Money,” I said.
“And why? This, here, is ours, but everything, all, is His. For Christians it is the bells, for us it is the horn, for Muslims it is the loudspeaker, like brainwashing. He doesn’t care how you pray, but people need to be reminded. There are different ways. It is simple, but today everyone wants a DVD. They make it more complicated.”
Standing, he took my cup, and walked to a large tin of Purina. He scattered dry food into bowls for Dagma and the cats. We sat on the dirty couches located on the covered patio. He peeled a clementine. This was the first day of a twenty-eight day juice fast. He gave me half the fruit. I was feeling weak, tired, at ease. We ate quietly, and he took the pulp from his mouth. He stood, threw the peel and half-masticated fruit into the brush. “After I pray, I will drop you off in town.”
And for ten minutes I sat, watching the cats climb on the roofs, looking out at the almond trees, and practiced not worrying about where and when and how I would get back to the hostel, to Tel Aviv and to Cairo. He came out with a different hat on, a floppy cap, the kind Rembrandt used to wear, and a corduroy coat over a different sweatshirt.
We were silent in the car ride back into town. “Here we are.” “Thank you, for everything,” I said, as I grasped his wide hand and looked into his chinked blue eyes. I got out and he drove on. I walked into the cafe to ask about how to see the Golden Domed Church, not really wanting to, but knowing it was probably worth seeing. The waitress asked and told me that it was only open for group tours. I had hoped I wouldn’t be able to go. My Ein Karem experience was complete. It was time to leave.