מרים סיון ميريام سيفان Miriam Sivan

 

Captain's Table

שולחן הקפטן מאת מרים סיון – לקריאת הסיפור בעברית הקליקו כאן

A few weeks ago I approached HaOgen, a landmark pub at the entrance to Haifa port. It was a late Friday morning in August. The sun was high, it was hot, and the shaded tables in front were filled with elderly men and a few women. I walked over to the couple I had to come to see, my father's childhood friend, Igal, and his wife, Nili. They lived in Tel Aviv and travelled north to see old seafaring friends. After hugs, kisses, a cold drink and small talk, Igal, said to me: "Come. I want some people to meet you."

We went inside the dim cool pub. More elderly men were seated around a long table loaded with bottles of whiskey, arak, beer, pickled olives and vegetables, fried fish, humus, and pita. The men were drinking and eating heartily.  Igal put his arm around me. "Chevre, this is Baruch's daughter."

They looked up from their plates and glasses. It didn't matter that I was decades their junior, their old friend's daughter, they checked me out as seafaring men check out a woman on land. I smiled at them, a little uncomfortable, but mostly not. At this moment, I missed my father. He died 17 years ago.

"Miryam." Igal turned to me. "This is the Captain's Table."

*

My father left Israel because of the sea. Not that the sea itself did him any harm. No it was always good to him, including showing him the world when this land broke his heart. It is not an exaggeration to trace my parents' emigration to the U.S. through my father's relationship to the sea. From a boyhood in the Zevulun Seafaring Society, to adolescence in the Palyam, from young adulthood in the Irgun, which then merged into the Israeli navy, and finally to three years as a Merchant Marine, all these sea-related chapters in my father's life also reflected critical junctures in Israel's early history.

Some were moving chapters. The Sea Scouts explored the ancient coastline. He spoke of Beirut's beauty. Palyam members defied the British blockade carrying European refugees on their backs from outlying ships. The Merchant Marines — on the first commercial vessels to fly Israeli flags in 2000 years — witnessing the joyful weeping of Jewish crowds who filled the ports of Baltimore, of Liverpool, and other cities around the world.

Some chapters were more controversial, painful even. My father was among the Irgun fighting forces on Kfar Vitkin beach who unloaded arms from the Altalena. Because of this, his commanding officer in the Israeli Navy told him that he would never rise above his rank of First Sailor. The heartbreak that had begun when the Altalena was fired upon and then sunk by the Hagana, was now compounded by the national 'blacklist' against the political Right. Was this the point in his life when other horizons began to beckon?

*

The retired captains who meet every Friday at HaOgen have lived the history of modern State of Israel and its sea.  Most of them, like my father, were part of sailing organizations and militias before Independence, and became part of the official Navy and Merchant Marines after. From the great seaman's strike of 1951 to the build-up of Israel's navy into a world class fighting force, these men are repositories of stories integral to understanding the past and contemporary fabric of Israel.

Emphasis here on men. Emphasis here on the boy's club. The high ranking soldiers and sailors in this country have access to political and economic positions of power. By definition women and Arabs are marginalized.  I wonder about the uber-masculine identity of those whose sport and employment is, and was, the sea. I think about Rambam extolling Jewish parents to teach their children how to swim. Yet when my father said he was going to sea, his father, a religious Hasid, forbade him. Jews were not made for lives on the sea, my grandfather pronounced. But when he realized he could not influence his adult son, he begged that at the very least, my father lay tefillin every morning. And my utterly secular father did just that.

*

"I grew up right next to your father," one of the oldest men at the table inside the pub addresses me. "In Tel Aviv. Around the corner from Ben-Gurion."

"He used to steal fruit from his trees."

"Yes, that too." I notice how everyone else seems to revere this particular man.

"He's the most senior captain here," Igal whispers in my ear. "They come from all over the country to pay respect."

"Come sit with us." A man to the old captain's right pours me a tall glass of arak. It is not yet noon. "Come. We have lots of stories to tell you about your father."

Igal nudges me towards them. "Go," he says. "Listen. It's history."

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