The Bread of Orphans
Early in 1951, the elders agreed to petition the Supreme Court a second time. In the letter of appeal, they explained the Zionist soldiers' defiance of the court order. Again we would wait in hope for many months, innocently believing that the Court could somehow make the military obey its legal decisions.
Though we would receive a surprisding answer, I would be far from Gish when it finally came.
On a hazy, humid morning, our Bishop arrived in Gish. He had been tirelessly visiting all the outlying villages arranging for deliveries of food, clothing and medical supplies. along with the list of urgent needs, he was accumulating a lengthy accounting of complaints.
He walked the streets of Gish, escorted by crowds of men who pointed out the overcrowded houses, the children playing in worn and too-small clothing. Gradually, their complaints turned to the loss of property--twelve acres, twenty, thirty, forty - each man topping the next as they bemoaned their confiscated land. Though they tried to contain their anger in respect for the Bishop, they were soon tirading loudly about the losses sustained. Again and again, the men tried to pin him moth-like with one pointed question: What power did he have to get their land back?
Father was walking along quietly at the edge of the crowd. In a lull between the complaints, he spoke up.
"Bishop, excuse me. I have a request also."
The Bishop knew Father well from accasional visits to Biram in the Past. Possibly he expected another listing of wrongs and injuries. He nodded politely, with a hint or weariness in his smile. "What is it, Michael?"
"I ahve a son-my youngest. His name is Elias," Father explained. He's a good student, and , I want to send him to a good school. Please, can you help me?"
The other men were jolted by the abarupt shift in conversation. Impatiently, without thinking, they interrupted. "What are you talking about? We're trying to get our homes and our land back. And you're bothering the Bishop with something like this?" As soon as the heated words were out, they flushed with embarrassment.
The Bishop's smile broadened. "Let me think on this for a little while, Michael. Come and see me before I leave the village." And then the crowd swept him along again.
Father kept the promised appointment with the Bishop. Though he did not have a proper school to send me to, the Bishop explained that there was an orphanage near his own home. I would be welcome there, and the bishop promised to see to my education personally.
Father accepted the offer at once with deep gratitude. Eagerly, he discussed his plans with Mother and found her less eager to send her youngest child--her favored son--so far from home. In the end, of course , she submitted.
Then Father took me aside. There was a slight catch in his voice as he explained. " In few days we will take you to the bus. You are going to Haifa on the coast to study with the Bishop.
This is a wonderful opportunity for you, Elias. You will never have such a chance here in Gish.
"And there is another thing, he said, pausing. Now Father searched my eyes with his steady, serious gaze. "You are not being sent away to be spoiled by privilege. Learn all you can from the Bishop. If you become a true man of God--you will know how to reconcile enemies--how to turn hatred into peace. Only a true servant of God can do that."
I could scarcely fathom such an enormous-sounding task. I only knew that the prospect of life in Haifa sounded thrilling. At twelve years old, I had never been beyond our hills.
On the morning of my departure, I was awake with the light. Even so, Mother had awakened before me, had finished her silent prayers, and was packing a small bag with my few belongings. Rising from my straw mat, I felt uneasy. In the stillness of dawn, I heard the faint jingle of the doves and fish on Mother's necklace--and suddenly I did not feel at all adventurous. An emptiness opened in the space below my ribs. I could only pick at the special egg Mother had so lovingly saved for my farewell breakfast.
The whole family trudged together to the bus stop-at a crossing of roads not far from Gish where the bus occasionally found its way. Mother and Father were to accompany me to Haifa. Wardi and my brothers followeed glumly, barely looking at me all the way to the bus stop. And then the ancient bus lumbered up, its bitter -smelling exhust tingling my nostrils. My bag was loaded, we climbed on board, and Father carefully counted out the coins for our fare from what he had earned by working in our orchard. Without ceremony, the bus jolted forward, rumbling down the hills. We rounded a bend--and my brothers and Wardi disappeared. With a sick feeling, I realized suddenly that I did not know when I would see them again.
"Seventy-five kilometers to Haifa," the driver shouted over the roar of the bus. The few other passengers merely nodded. To me that was an unimaginable distance--impossibly far! I sat between Mother and Father, picking at the torn seatcover miserably jouncing with each bump. An empty, rootless feeling--one I'd never felt before--widened inside me with each passing kilometer. Mountains and towns and orchards sped by our window, and only one thought filled my head: How can I ever find my way back home again? Where is my home?
Unknown to any of us, I was about to face the most crucial turning points, confronted at such a tender age by events and choices that would shape my entire life.
When we stepped off the bus in Haifa I was completely bewildered. The huge station was a mass of busses, autos and travelers. The men and women standing in the ticket line wore the nicest suits and dresses I had ever seen. Their clothes seemed stunning compared to the scuffed shoes, baggy shorts and shirt I had gotten through the Bishop's relief efforts. And I could not stop craning my neck, scanning the buildings and clustered homes that covered the low, rolling hillside down to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
Somehow, Father guided us through the busy streets -paved streets!--to the correct address. With each comer we turned, the buildings got older and more decrepit until we reached the Bishop's orphanage--a squat, gray-looking building jammed between the others.
On the doorstep we were greeted by a young, plain-looking woman with a lilting European accent and a welcoming smile. Inside, the Bishop received us, chatting with Father, and I knew this was a great honor. Mother judiciously eyed the accommodations, nodding politely as she met the other Belgian and French ladies who, in service to the church, lived here with the orphans.
Before I knew it, Mother and Father doorstep again. A quick hug from Mother-and she turned her face away. A wave from Father Whose smile seemed a little fixed.
Then they were gone.
The Young woman gently laid an arm across my slumping shoulder as I stare dejectedly for a time into the empty street. "Come, Elias," she said tenderly - if unthinking . "I want you to meet meet our other orphans."
The European ladies immediately swooped me under their collective wing, fussing over me like so many mothers. Though they were tender and caring, the deep homesickness left an empty gap in my stomach. I was a country boy, uprooted from quiet and replanted in a noisy city, my roots pinched beneath concrete. My move to Haifa had caused me to miss home -our real home in Biram -more than I had our exile in Gish. How deeply I missed walking alone in the hills, drinking from clear-water springs of Galilee. Amid the busses and grimy buildings of the city, I had to force my mind from those faraway hill. During each long, grueling lesson, they beckoned to me with a wild freshness that was suddenly missing.
And in the Bishop's rigorous schedule for me, I began to lose something else. Studying the Bible as if it were a text- book was very unsatisfying. The sense of Jesus' presence, whether real or imagined, had always been so vivid. In Haifa it seemed like memory of a bygone Childhood. I clutched at the New Testament promise Mother had so often quoted: "I will never leave you nor forsake you." Despite those words, I was lonely. I longed for the days when I had felt his presence in the wild places. I longed for solitude.
For several months this yearing ached in me, deepas a prayer that coursed through my whole being. And then I was surprised by an unexpected "gift".
It was bedtime. I was curled up in an over-stuffed chair in a corner of the common room which we used both for study and play. Spread across my lap was one of the huge, gloriously colorful picture books the housemothers had brought from Europe. The other children were busy with games as I leafed through the pages, escaping into a fantastic world of adventure. One of the housemothers, a French woman who was preeminently observant of the rules, came in and announced the end of playtime.
"Come, Elias, she said crisply, taking the book from my lap. "Into bed."
Another housemother--one whose gentleness and delicately scented lavender cologne made her a favorite of us all--had also come into the room. She noticed the look of discouragement on my face. Perhaps she sensed something beyond a typical, youthful unwillingness to go to bed. As the last boy filed out of the room, she came to my defense. "Don't you think we could let him stay up a little longer than the others? After all, he's a good student. And see how he loves the books. I'm sure he'll be quiet and not disturb anyone." She finished with a conspiratorial glance at me.
So it happened that I was allowed to stay up longer than the other children--all by myself in the common room! It was a small measure of solitudes not the wilderness peace of Galilee, but it would do.
Once I'd been given this glorious gift, I did not waste a moment on storybooks. I found an empty journal and began to fill it with letters to Jesus. I was too self-conscious perhaps to speak to Him right out loud in a house full of people as I had in the deserted hills of home. So night after night I spilled my heart across the blank pages with childlike innocence and dawning maturity.
"Mother says you have a purpose in everything," I wrote. "But I don't understand what you want from us. Is it your plan that Mother and Father suffer as you suffered? Father will not fight to get his land back as others are willing to do. Is this the kind of' "peace' you want us to show the world? Will anyone hear our cry and help us."
Many nights, during the fall of 1951, I scrawled out my dearest hope that the Court would order the military to allow my family and the other villagers to return to Biram. That ancient village with its moss-covered walls and sheltering trees seemed to me a cradle of all that was good and simple and innocent. It was a home that had protected us. The church that was its living heart had nurtured oar spirits. If only we could have it back. It was all I wanted.
And so, with my nightly writings, I firmly established a lifelong practice of private communion that proved as vital as the blood in my veins or the breath in my lungs. It was a practice established in irony, for at the very moment I tightly grasped my thread of inner peace again, the seeds of bitterness were about to be sown in my heart.
Christmas passed. In the orphanage our observance was joyful. If I was still homesick, the simple European touches added by our housemothers helped to cheer me. More marvelous was the sense of holiness, the solemnity and wonder I felt at the Bishop's Nativity celebration in the huge, cathedral-like church. The bells, the happy carols, the stone arches all warmed me with thoughts of home. In fact, being in church had come to feel like being at home to me, somehow. I loved it.
One cold Sunday morning early in January 1952, I was huddled with the other children in the chilliness of the old church. We stood to sing a hymn and I turned to whisper something to the boy next to me. From thc corner of my eye, I spotted him--and my head jerked around. In the back, in a baggy, worn coat, sat my oldest brother, Rudah. But it could not be! Why would he come so far? It must be good news about Biram.
In response, he nodded faintly. My mouth must have dropped open in amazement, for one of the housemothers nudged me and gave a stern 'look. I could do nothing but fidget through the rest of the service, sneaking secret glances over my shoulder to be sure Rudah would not disappear.
When it was over, I broke from the group and ran down the long crowded aisle to him, the housemother calling after me. "Rudah !" I threw my arms around him. I had grown some, and now we were nearly the same height. "I've missed you. Why are you here? How are Mother and Father? Can you stay to lunch?"
"Come outside, Elias," he said quietly. "I have something to tell you."
On the church steps we paused. I drew my thin coat close to my chin to block the bitter wind. Rudah faced me now with a look of deep anguish. "Mother and Father sent me to tell you the news. They didn't want you to hear it and worry about us. Elias," he said, fighting back tears, "it was horrible. The soldiers. The bombs--"
"What are you saying?" I pressed him anxiously. Suddenly I was shaking with cold and nerves. Numbly, I listened as the story spilled out.
Some time in early December the Court had again granted the people of Biram approval to return to their homes. For the second time, the village elders marched across the hill and presented the order to the Zionist soldiers. This time, the elders were pleasantly surprised.
Without question or dispute, the commanding officer read the order. He shrugged. "This is fine." And as the elders stood in stunned silence he added, "We need some time to pull out. You can return on the twenty-fifth."
On Christmas! What an incredible Christmas gift for the village. The elders fairly ran across the hill to Gish to spread the news. At long last, they would all be going home. The Christmas Eve vigil became a celebration of thanksgiving and joyful praise.
On Christmas morning, broken gray clouds rolled across the upper Galilee, and the still air was crisp and cold. Bundled in sweaters and old coats supplied by the Bishop's relief workers, the villagers gathered in the first light of day for the march to Biram. Though they were ragged looking, their spirits were high. Mother, Father, Wardi and my broth-ers all joined in singing a jubilant Christmas hymn as they mounted the hill. It was the first time in nearly six years that such joy had flooded those ancient slopes.
At the top of the hill, their hymn trailed into silence. The marchers halted uncertainly. Far below them, Biram was surrounded by Zionists tanks, bulldozers and other military vehicles. But this was December 25, the morning they were supposed to return home. Why were the soldiers still there? In the distance, a soldier shouted, and they realized they had been seen.
A cannon blast sheared the silence. Then another--a third. The soldiers had opened fire--not on the villagers, but on Biram! Tank shells shrieked into the village, exploding in fiery destruction. Houses blew apart like paper. Stones and dust flew amid the red flames and billowing black smoke. One shell slammed into the side of the church, caving in a thick stone wall and blowing off half the roof. The bell tower teetered, the bronze bell knelling, and somehow held amid the dust clouds and cannon-fire. For nearly five minutes, the explosions rocked Biram, home collapsing against home, fire spreading through the fallen timbers.
Then all was silent -except for the weeping of women and the terrified screams of babies and children.
Mother and Father stood shaking, huddled together with Wardi and my brothers. In a numbness of horror, they watched as bulldozers plowed through the ruins, knocking down much of whal had not already blown apart or tumbled. At last, Father said--to my brothers or to God, they were never sure~"Forgive them," Then he led them back to Gish.
I could not absorb Rudah's words. He told me that another village, Ikrit, had also been bombed at about the same time. I was simply cold.
Cold as we parted, hugging on the doorstep of the or phanage. Cold as I picked at my supper in silence. The housemothers did not press me to do my schoolwork that evening, for they had heard the news from Rudah, too.
Alone that night, I was frightened by my own thoughts. I did not know how to handle the anger. More than anger. Rage. The bombing was worse than any physical beating I could have suffered. I could not face my journal ashamed to pour out my dark feelings there. I lectured myself, wishing that I could be just like Father, who was my indelible example of spirituality. But I was me -a young man with a growing awareness that the world seemed bent on my destruction-.
So it was that I buried my feelings, denying the anger that was too ugly to admit. And in that moment a small gap began to widen inside me, an internal battle that I would one day have to reconcile.
In another week, I lost myself again in the journal, posing questions to which I had not the vaguest answer.
"How can we ever find again the peace we used to share with our Jewish neighbors?" I wrote. "How can I help my people parents -my Palestinian people?"
Though I wanted to leave Haifa -to share in the hard life of exile with my family -I would remain for two more years. I was being prepared for the next step on my journey, a step that would carry me farther from home than 1 could have imagined. It was Father's wish that l study, and I would obey. The Bishop's house of charity would shelter and instruct me.
As with all the people of Biram, 1 would continue to eat the bread of the homeless and the orphaned.