War and Remembrance (October 21, 1988)

On a rock in front of Etzel House, “the museum of Jaffa's liberation” that commemorates the Irgun, a mortar still points toward the center of Jaffa, a little left of the clock tower, more or less to a place where felafel is sold today. Israel's flag snaps briskly above the cannon, caught in a sea breeze that blows crows and hoopoes helplessly across the sky. Without doubt this is the handsomest memorial in Tel Aviv: an old war-ruined hotel with the missing walls replaced by smooth panes of tinted glass, an inspired superposition of the clean lines of international style on the flourishes of Arab architecture, a new vision upon an old. Hidden in the iceplant around it are small concrete bunkers with numbered floodlights, so that of an evening the monument can be lit for motorists on Hayarkon Street and passing ships at sea. On such nights, old Arab-filled Jaffa must loom in the darkness like the untold side of a story, an enormous weight of history ready to roll down the hillside.

I have always been drawn to war museums, though I can't say precisely why. My uncle, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, has called me a Communist for my low opinion of most wars, but if he were to look through my scrapboxes he would find far more brochures on old forts and battlefields, citadels and castles than on archaeological digs or Impressionist masters. It may be their unembarrassed portrayal of Courage and Fortitude that lure me in their direction, for these qualities so seldom come pure (if at all) in our humdrum daily lives. Whatever the attraction, for more than a year I had driven past Etzel House and longed to go in, and finally last week I did, right behind a middle-aged Canadian Jewish couple on their first vacation to Israel, decked out in T-shirts and visors they had bought in Jerusalem.

None of us spoke enough Hebrew to read the displays, so one of the museum's guides, a gentle-faced young man with a polite, guileless voice, stepped forward to help us. He took us first to a map of Israel divided according to the 1948 plan, a patchwork of Jewish and Arab areas that could have only made sense to Britons with return tickets to London. He had just begun to explain how many Jewish towns lay in Arab areas, when the middle-aged wife asked naively why Jaffa was marked “Arab.” The guide explained gently, “The British wanted it that way,” and, as the idea of arbitrariness in Englishmen seemed to satisfy her sensibility, went on with his talk. As we walked to the next exhibit, sunlight streamed through the windows and bathed us all in its glow.

The guide showed us the stirring words with which young Menahem Begin spurred on his Irgunniks, when in October 1948 the battle for Jaffa was imminent. “Opposite is a cruel enemy which is determined to exterminate us. Behind us are your parents, our brothers and children . . . Do not pity your enemy as he does not pity our people.” Down the hall were the mortars with which his exhortation was carried out. They had pelted Jaffa with 6,000 shells in the four days of the liberation. “They must have fired without a stop,” said the middle-aged husband (a veteran) with a reserved sort of awe. “Yes,” replied the guide, “and all the Arabs ran away.” As we imagined them running, the sound of someone washing dishes filtered out from the back room.

The Irgun fought alone for the first days of the battle, losing 14 of its brave fighters before the Hagana joined in and the Arabs were routed. The guide showed us a map of the Jewish forces closing in on Jaffa. “They had nowhere to go except into the sea,” the guide told us. Sixty-five thousand of the 70,000 Arab residents fled the city. The middle-aged woman asked tentatively, “Is Jaffa Arab today?” and the guide replied, “Yes, but there are not many left.” The couple said, “Of course.” An old curator shuffled past us with bourekas and coffee.

The tour ended, as it would in any war museum, with a muster-roll of the dead. The guide read out the numbers of fallen among the Irgun, the Stern group, the Hagana and the Jewish civilians. He prodded us to our left. “In that room you can see pictures of the fighters who died.” But I still had a question, one I discovered was unusual, the product of a quality that can ruin war museums: inadequate identification with the heroes at hand. “How many Arabs were killed?” I asked.

The middle-aged man glared briefly as if he questioned my motives; the guide merely looked perplexed. “I really don't know,” he said, but after a moment's embarrassed pause he recovered his serenity. “I don't think the Arabs know either.” We all said, “Of course,” and the couple excused themselves to return to their vacation.

One of the last displays we'd seen was a huge photograph of the old mosque on Hayarkon Street, which the guide told us Begin had spared because it was a house of worship. “You see,” he said, “this is proof that Begin was a human being.” But as the four of us knew, it was nothing of the kind: it was one more piece of evidence that he was something of a saint. If we had wanted some proof that he was flawed like the rest of us, we would have had to walk 708 paces south to the falafel stands near the clock tower, in the range of the Etzel House mortar, and persuaded old Arabs to tell us their tales of heroism. In the conflict of the stories (and with the help of a good history book) we might have been able to locate Begin the Man and, with him, the true face of war. But no war museum alone is designed to reveal Men. Some emotions are so precious to us that we want to see them untainted: we want to remember love as passionate, hatred as just, courage as unmixed with cruelty and untempered by courage or kindness in the enemy who faced us. We want to shout our pride from the housetops without having to worry that the neighbors might complain, and in a sense the Etzel House museum is precisely a stone-and-glass shout.

In all my life I have seen but one war memorial picturing its hero as a human being, a fallen creature before God. Its concession to impurity was brought on by the extremest of circumstances. It seems that in 1887 a former Civil War general named DePoister wanted to erect a memorial to the greatest hero of Saratoga, the battle that marked the turning point in the American Revolution. This hero had rallied the riflemen at Breymann's Redoubt when the American cause had seemed lost, and, though wounded through his boot, had turned the tide of battle and routed the English. The only problem was that the hero was Benedict Arnold, the man who for Americans was the archetype of traitor. Not long after Saratoga, frustrated by being passed over for promotion, Arnold had tried to pass the British command the defense plans for West Point, N.Y., by hiding them in the boot of one Major Andre, but Andre had been captured and executed for spying.

How to memorialize a man people knew only as a villain? DePoister solved the dilemma in an elegant, touching way. He erected an inscribed granite monument to Arnold – but never mentioned his name on it. At the top of the monument was carved a laurel wreath, signifying victory; at the bottom, a downturned cannon, signifying dishonor; and between them the most interesting detail of all: a boot, signifying Arnold the wounded hero, Arnold the devious traitor, Arnold the fallen man. One can still see the memorial today, just inside the woodline on the hills above the Hudson River.

I finished my visit to Etzel House by watching a slide show on the Irgun. A piece of narration that accompanied a picture of the gallows at Acre prison, where many Irgun fighters were hanged, struck me as a suitable caption for the entire museum – the cannons and the Sten guns, the pictures of brave fighters and maps of Arabs driven to the sea. The British voice intoned significantly to any visitor who did not feel the tragedy, “It is easy to forget that this meant death."

Danny Kaye (December 16, 1988)

December 1970. I am 10 years old, with a glass of Hawaiian Punch in one hand and a no. 2 pencil in the other, taking notes about the Christmas movies on California television. My brow is knitted in concentration. Unlike the other children I know, I pay little attention to Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They are irrelevant to the fundamental questions of human life, as I then see them. Instead, I catch every performance - three times each weekend - of The Miracle on 34th Street, until my mother feels compelled to leave the house each time Edmund Gwenn first says “Ho, ho, ho.” In this film, John Payne and Maureen O'Hara, prosaic members of the black-and-white lower middle class, discover that there is a Santa Claus, that miracles do happen, that the world is not as humdrum as it seems.

My inquiry deepens. In the TV Guide I have circled every Danny Kaye movie scheduled for broadcast in December. Danny Kaye has never made a Christmas movie, but I am not an ideologue, just a premature brooder in need of fodder for his thought. My mother finds nothing worth brooding about in Danny Kaye movies. In the one I watch most often this December, The Court Jester, he masquerades as Robin Hood at the castle of King John. At one point, he must drink a toast with the evil king, and the real Robin Hood's band of merry men has seen to it that one of the goblets of wine is poisoned. They have taught Danny Kaye a mnemonic to help him remember which goblet to drink from when the toasting begins. For 10 minutes, he repeats increasingly more erroneous variations on this rhyme:

The pellet with the poison's
in the vessel with the pestle,
The chalice from the palace
has the brew that is true.

My mother snaps “This is silly!” and storms out to wherever she has gotten in the habit of going to avoid Edmund Gwenn. I predict, perhaps, that this wonderful rhyme will stick with me even 18 years from now. (If so, I am right.)

To young Arthur, Danny Kaye is not simply a silly man, a good fellow to spend an afternoon with, a caring father figure, a friend. Like all children, I have my eyes half-focused on adulthood, and on what kind of person it will demand me to be. Danny Kaye is living evidence that the carefree spirit, the effervescence, the pure-hearted joyousness I cherish about childhood need not be squeezed out of me in the process of maturation. He is my guarantee that I will arrive in adulthood whole.

March 1987. Danny Kaye dies at age 74. I am sitting at a Brooklyn coffee shop with a friend of mine, a flutist. There is a cup of heavily-caffeinated coffee on one side of me, an opened Time magazine on the other. I smile sympathetically and nod, but I wish the flutist would stop telling me how mean-spirited her personal manager is and let me read the Cinema section. I realize in passing that I am responding inappropriately to the situation.

I have long since ceased to think of Danny Kaye as a character reference who will bring me intact through the customs station of maturity. With only the average number of hard knocks life has to offer, and in spite of the copious notes I took at age 10, I have become a grown-up like other grown-ups, fully as mixed a bag as John Payne or Maureen O'Hara: temperamental and self-centered a good part of the time, driven by my own demons, each virtue seamlessly paired to a petty, needless vice. I wish I could perk up my friend in her hour of need, but more often than not at this hour of the day I would rather read my Time.

And yet, when I get around to it, Danny Kaye's obituary disturbs me. He looks up at me, conductor's baton in hand, with his silly eyes, but his marriage is described as a “stormy” one, and he is said to have been “temperamental and even abusive” to his friends. I learn that he was an intense overachiever (UNICEF ambassador, amateur conductor, licensed pilot, Chinese-style cook, even amateur surgeon) and that he showed off his talents aggressively. He was never the simple, infectiously joyous man who made me so remarkably happy in Decembers past. Even though it is long past mattering for me, I am disappointed to see humanity-at-large lose a bit of its variety, for though the joyous man is rare, the neurotic egotist is a very common type.

December 1988. I sit at my word processor, exotic fruit juice in one hand and a message from my editor that I had better finish a Diary piece in the other. I am no longer merely a brooder, I am an obsessive. I am still thinking about Danny Kaye, and though it must be 15 years since I last saw The Court Jester, I cannot get the vessel with the pestle out of my mind. It is once again the month of children's movies, and a great question nags me: How could a man, so simply happy on the screen, be so monumentally flawed in private life? Could he really have been fooling me all those years? I flip the question over and settle on a truth about Danny Kaye that, once more in my life, answers one of my fundamental questions.

For though I have arrived in adulthood flawed and prosaic, I have never lost track of the man I wanted to be: inspiring and kind, someone who leaves each life I touch brighter than I found it. I have never been able to extricate myself from the man who prefers to read Time magazine - and so I suspect Danny Kaye was never able to extricate himself from the temperamental egotist. But in the 10-minute bursts when the movie camera was on, or in the two or three hours he would appear somewhere on stage, he could, by sheer force of hamminess and willpower, leave all that in the dressing room, and live, breathe and be the purely positive, joy-bringing man he wanted to be. I decide that I too must have my element, in which for short stretches of time I can slip the surly bonds of my character and bring joy to my fellow men and women. Maybe it is in writing, maybe in marriage, work, recreation or even in heart-to-heart talks at the coffee shop.

My editor asks me, what's this monotonous rhyme I keep chanting about the brew that is true.

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