Saturday, January 6, 2007

Our life, according to Ezra

Ezra the gardener did not wash the stairs Friday. He was in a hospital, recuperating from surgery.

Ezra (not his actual name) is almost 80. He has seldom missed work in the past 21 years. Since 1985 he has been the once-a-week gardener and janitor of the small Tel Aviv apartment building where I live. On Friday mornings, he cleans three flights of stairs and tends the plants along a path leading to the entrance. This makes the place more pleasant for the sabbath.

The work takes two hours, and Ezra has made it clear many times that this job is important to him.

His commuting takes more time than the work. To get to his two-hour job, Ezra travels for three hours roundtrip, with three different buses in each direction. Ezra used to take care of other buildings in the neighborhood, but one by one they laid him off, and only we remain.

Some people try to avoid Ezra. They know it is not easy to stop him once he starts talking. Like many Israelis, he has much to say. He talks about the stupidity of the government, the cruelties committed by criminals, the high cost of food, the security dangers that Israel faces, and a range of other subjects in the news.

To those who take the trouble to listen, Ezra talks of three personal sorrows.

One of Ezra's sons was off to a promising career in the security services when a crippling illness struck him. He cannot walk. His superiors arranged a job for him at a computer instead of in the field, and Israel's national insurance pays for the costly drugs he receives. His wife, a daughter of a kibbutz, is very supportive. It looks as if Ezra's son will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

"This is our life," Ezra says in summation when he tells of such problems. "Our fate."

Another son became an officer in the army and married a woman officer who served under his command. They returned to civilian life, and, influenced by a charismatic rabbi, joined a religious community. Now they have about a dozen children and very little income. Ezra bought food for them a few times, but they refused it because it did not have their rabbi's approval as kosher. One time, they persuaded Ezra and his wife to spend a weekend with the rabbi and his followers. Ezra and his wife never went back.

Ezra's wife suffers from an illness of the joints. She is in pain most of the time. Ezra takes care of her, cooks and does most of the housekeeping. His only help is a worker who comes once a week for three hours, paid for by Israel's national insurance. Ezra and his wife married when she was 17 and he 27. They have been together for more than one-half century. She is a wonderful and lovely woman, he says.

Over the years, Ezra has told bits of his own story. He came from Basra, the big port city in southern Iraq, and arrived in Israel as a young Zionist in the big immigration of the early 1950s. Unlike some immigrants from Iraq, he does not claim that life was better there.

One day, after some prying on my part, Ezra told about growing up in Iraq. When he was a boy his father, a moneychanger, went to another city to do a deal and never came home. People in the other city killed him and took his money.

Another time, Ezra talked about what happened to the most important Jew in his hometown. Shafiq Adas, who had a business in Basra, was said to be the richest and most influential Jew in Iraq. He had Muslim partners and highly placed connections in the government. His millions and his contacts did not save him after the authorities accused him of helping the Zionists. In 1948, the Iraq government took his money and hanged him in public.

Lately Ezra has been dealing with his own medical problems. He does not complain the way some people do. If asked about his health, he will give a grim report, followed by a shrug and a little smile. Then he adds his standard conclusion, the lesson he applies to other hardships he has witnessed: "This is our life."


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