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San Diegan Matt Wagner discovers himself in Israel

Homeward bound

Matt Wagner and daughter. It’s exactly things like the smoke tendrils that have worried him since he became a father.
Matt Wagner and daughter. It’s exactly things like the smoke tendrils that have worried him since he became a father.

The power plant’s acting up again,” Matt Wagner sighs, white large bats, coal-black and squeaky, wheel far above his head in the €ark sky. From where he stands on His apartment’s small (balcony, Wagner can see the plant’s ominous gray tower looming up from the northern Tel Aviv coast. Lights on the tower’s head blink green and red. LazyJ dense tendrils of white smoke drift from the tower’s mouth. The summer air is so still that the smoke tendrils don’t dissipate, they grow. '

In the early 1980s you may have seen Matt Wagner surfing off Law Street in Pacific Beach.

“Humph,” Wagner grimaces at the distant tower. “I’m going to have to call the plant in the morning. When the weather’s like this, when the air doesn’t move, they’re supposed to use low-sulfur fuel.”

It’s exactly things like the smoke tendrils, Wagner explains — air quality, quality of education, water quality — that have worried him since he became a father. From the balcony, Wagner can hear his wife, Devorah, murmuring to their daughter Shira, a nine-month-old baby who seems to grow and even thrive without ever needing to sleep.

"All of these Orthodox Jews. Beards. Long coats."

Wagner, tall, lanky, moves from the balcony and settles in the dining room lined with books:

Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and Miami; a well-thumbed set of the Talmud; Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality; the Jerusalem Bible; Biblical commentaries, and commentaries on Biblical commentaries; books in Italian on Italian geography, books on psychology in Hebrew; books on economics in Hebrew, books on Persian grammar in English. It’s a strange mix, secular and religious, and Wagner, shiny-faced, sweating in the oppressive air, eyes the collection while Devorah tries unsuccessfully to coerce little Shira to sleep.

“I kept waiting for the Patriot missiles. When the Patriots would go off, we’d feel them."

Shira starts to cry. Devorah patters down the hall and into the dining room. She is petite, pretty, with very large dark eyes, and sweat trickles down her brow, little droplets of it glistening in her curly black hair.

“She won’t go to sleep,” Devorah says, making a helpless gesture with her small damp hands.

Wagner makes a tight smile. “We’re never going to sleep again.”

“It’s all,” Devorah chuckles, “Saddam Hussein’s fault.”

The bats wheel and squeak in the sky, the baby cries and cries, the power plant exudes tendrils of noxious white smoke. On this humid Mediterranean night, when the radio announces more and more incredible news of Rabin and Arafat, the world does seem a mysterious place, pregnant with unforeseen conclusions, unusual connections. In this atmosphere, the fact that Saddam Hussein should somehow possess an intimate affiliation with a restless Israeli baby does not seem altogether preposterous.

Devorah fetches a plastic bottle of Coke from the kitchen, sets it on the table, where it begins immediately to perspire. Sipping the Coke, mopping up the bottle’s sweat with paper napkins, under a relentless overhead lamp, Devorah and Matt tell their story, or, more particularly, Matt’s story, of how a Southern California boy, a San Diego boy, came to this hot Tel Aviv apartment.

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The story they tell may someday have an ending. For the moment, it has only a beginning and a rudimentary middle. So far, it is a story about what some people call destiny or what others call the way decisions play themselves out. And it is a story in which Saddam Hussein plays an unusual role. It is a story about war and religion. It is also a story about how some of life’s surprises are not unfortunate ones.

In the early 1980s you may have seen Matt Wagner surfing every summer day on his white longboard off Law Street in Pacific Beach. Or, on Friday or Saturday nights, as you wandered along Prospect Street in La Jolla, you might have seen him breakdancing in a shiny blue-and-red polyester jogging suit with a six-man multicultural crew. Wagner and his cohorts practiced their moves every week in the rec room of a La Jolla Baptist church, and on good weekend nights on Prospect Street, their efforts paid off and they’d make 40 or 50 dollars from the passersby who’d toss them quarters or dollar bills.

A few years later Wagner might have bussed your table at the downtown Spaghetti Factory, where he worked, made 30 or 40 dollars a night, hourly plus tips. He might have bussed your table and come home late, smelling of dishwater and grease. At home he’d eat a half-dozen sandwiches of tuna fish salad he’d mix up in a large bowl then devour along with a quart of milk. His mom slept down the hall. His father was dead.

(Wagner’s father died when Wagner was four years old. The thing he remembers when he thinks of his father is watching the tall man shave. He remembers the smell of Brut.)

And so Wagner lived with his mother in a quiet, fatherless house near the beach, a not atypical home in Southern California. Wagner was graduated from La Jolla High. He enrolled at San Diego State. Surfing, break-dancing, bussing tables, coming home at night to eat, study, fall into bed. Sleep. A not atypical Southern Californian life, and one that many people in the world might envy.

Wagner’s drowsy, agreeable, leisurely life would have continued in that same vein if Wagner had not started to stop by and chat with Shaya Eichenblatt, a rabbi who sat at a rickety card table in the student center at San Diego State. Eichenblatt was rowdy, sarcastic, a kind of Orthodox “youth outreach” rabbi who was good at making Wagner laugh. He talked to Wagner about Judaism, about school, and repeatedly invited him to Friday night dinner at the Chabad House on Montezuma Road, a short walk from San Diego State.

Wagner declined Eichenblatt’s invitations. He just wanted to learn a little more about being Jewish and wasn’t sure he was interested in observant Orthodox Jews. Wagner knew dimly that their lives revolved around a great many rules and prohibitions. Wagner only dimly understood what it meant to be a plain Jew. He had been bar mitzvahed, learned a little of the Hebrew alphabet. But that was it. At that time, he says, being Jewish didn’t mean more than “placing a great importance on education.”

The daily talks with Eichenblatt continued. At the same time Wagner began to feel he was ready to leave home. Eichenblatt suggested he move into the Chabad House, where the organization kept a few rooms that they rented for a very low price. Wagner accepted and moved to Chabad on Purim night.

Now Purim is an unusual Jewish holiday, unfamiliar to most non-Jews and to many secular Jews, that commemorates the story told in the Book of Esther. It Is the celebration of the deliverance of Persian Jews from certain genocide. Purim is also a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras, a time for wearing costumes, for dancing, for acting.up. In fact, according to Jewish law, on Purim one is commanded to get good and drunk. So, on the night Wagner moved into Chabad House, he was a little awestruck to see rabbis and party-goers dancing and singing, vodka and whisky flowing freely, all in the bare white room that served as the Chabad synagogue. The room was packed and hot, the singing and music were loud, children dressed as clowns and Persian kings raced between people’s feet, rabbis kicked up their legs and hooted.

“I had never,” remembers Wagner, “seen anything like it in my life. I had no idea Judaism could be so, uh, lively. ”

Wagner stood off to the side, more eager to watch than join in the fun, and he noticed, standing in the doorway, puffing a cigarette, a stocky bearded fellow whom Wagner has come to call Mr. X. Mr. X was laughing very loud at a joke he’d just heard and Wagner wanted to hear it. He approached Mr. X and asked if he could bum a cigarette. Mr. X obliged, offered his lighter, all the while rapidly lecturing Wagner on the dangers of cigarettes.

“If smoking’s so bad for you, then why do you do it?” Wagner asked, puffing on the borrowed cigarette.

Mr. X exhaled a cloud of Marlboro smoke. “I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting into.”

Mr. X was living at Chabad House, in transit, he said, on his way back to Israel, where he lived. He was always rushing around with a great sense of self-importance, although his life, Wagner noticed, showed no sign of organization or permanence. Mr. X’s room in Chabad House was empty of furniture, save for a foam mattress on the floor, an old door supported by milk crates that served as a table, many books, and on one wall, a large, beautifully executed acrylic painting.that depicted a long row of veiled Iranian women firing what appeared to be Lugers.

When Wagner asked about the painting, Mr. X explained, “Do you know what the Ayatollah called the Iran-Iraq War? He called it the ‘War for Jerusalem.’ It’s always good, son, to remember who your enemies are.”

In fact, Mr. X was five or six years older than Wagner, and calling Wagner “son” was only one of Mr. X’s annoying traits. He constantly lectured Wagner as if he spoke from a vast and worldly experience. He criticized the courses Wagner took at San Diego State. He criticized Wagner’s taste in music and clothes. He complained of what he referred to as Wagner’s “lack of seriousness.” It was maddening, but Wagner was intrigued. Late at night, when he returned to Chabad House from the Spaghetti Factory, stinking of dishwater, Wagner showed up at Mr. X’s door with a quart of milk, a large can of tuna, a jar of mayonnaise, and a loaf of bread. And while Wagner made and ate an enormous pile of tuna fish sandwiches, he questioned Mr. X about Judaism. Mr. X, who was an observant Jew, picked at the tuna salad, but ignored the bread because it wasn’t kosher, and answered Wagner’s questions and complained loudly about Wagner’s ignorance.

“Here you are,” railed Mr. X, “studying Spanish when you can’t even read a word of Hebrew.”

“Here you are,” hectored Mr. X, “reading Sylvia Plath when you can’t quote a line from Yehuda Amichai.”

“Ammy-what?” Wagner asked.

“Never mind,” said Mr. X. “Let’s go for a drive.”

“And that’s really how it started,” remembers Wagner in his sweltering Tel Aviv apartment. “Those long, long drives. We’d get in the car and cruise El Cajon Boulevard, all the way from La Mesa to where it intersects with Park. We’d drive for hours. I mean, I’d drive and Mr. X would criticize. It was really a programmatic, concerted effort on his part to change my mind, to change the way I looked at my life.

“He’d have me drive to Southeast San Diego and he’d point out things to me there. He’d lecture me about infant mortality rates growing higher as soon as you crossed University Avenue. He lectured me about how young black men would be arrested for doing things the San Diego frat boys did all the time. He’d have me drive to Coronado then drive back across the bridge to Barrio Logan, and he’d rant at me about privilege and poverty. And my head would be spinning.

“Then he’d have me drive someplace else, someplace that wasn’t depressing, out to the beach, to Torrey Pines. And we’d stand there, and it would be so beautiful, and Mr. X’d say, ‘Nice, isn’t it?’ I’d agree. And he’d say, ‘Well, son, there’s more to the world than this. You never really felt at home here anyway. If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up working at The Gap in some shopping mall.’

“I’d get so angry with him. That line about The Gap always infuriated me. Sometimes I’d go for a couple of weeks without talking to him. But I’d always end up back in his room, then back in the car, with him talking and talking. He didn’t really hate America. I see now he was just trying to get me to look at things — my life, San Diego — objectively. He was pulling me away from San Diego. From my easy life. And pushing me toward something else. He’d always say, There are things in this world that are so beautiful, you can’t even imagine your way to them. You have to see them. And you haven’t seen them yet.’ “I was pretty interested by what he said. He was religious, and his life interested me. All of the rabbis and the families surrounding Chabad interested me. Their lives were filled with Judaism. They kept Shabbat. They kept the holidays. They prayed three times a day. Being Jewish meant everything to them. It was a wonderful way of life that interested me, but I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t see myself living that kind of life.

“So, the school year dragged on, and so did my conversations with Mr. X and with the Chabad rabbis. And despite everything, I was still pretty determined to learn Spanish, and I had applied for a year-long study program in Spain. Mr. X, of course, thought this was ridiculous, a big waste of time. ‘Why don’t you go to Israel and learn Hebrew? You’ve got to go to Israel,’ he said over and over again.

“The school year was almost over and I had my interview for the year-in-Spain program, which didn’t go well. I was distracted, I guess. Kind of nervous. And shortly after the interview, the rabbis at Chabad invited me to participate in this summer education program in the Catskills. It was a kind of ‘kosher camp,’ a Jewish religious education program. They gave you stipend, room and board. The only thing you had to pay was your airfare.

“Everything started to happen very fast. I found out I hadn’t been accepted for the Spain program. Mr. X was elated. I decided to go to Chabad kosher camp. Mr. X said, ‘.See you when you get back.’

“Kosher camp was incredible. This entirely religious environment. All of these Orthodox Jews. Beards. Long coats. The Catskills. It was like leaving the United States. I was in culture shock. I remember that one Friday night, a community of Satmar chassidim near kosher camp invited all of us guys over for dinner. Satmar are Hungarians and they have a reputation for being the most insular Orthodox Jews, they don’t even mix much with other Orthodox Jews. So we go over for Friday night dinner and the little Satmar kids with the long side locks stared at us.

“It was rare for them to come in contact with secular Jews, and they didn’t speak English very well. They spoke Yiddish. One by one they sort of snuck over to us to look at us. They were fascinated. They looked at my Swatch watch. They looked at my clothes. They asked me where I was from, and when I said San Diego, California, it was like I’d said I’d come from the moon. They treated us very kindly, sort of delicately, as if we were kids who’d been kidnapped at birth and raised very far from Jewish culture and had been brought back to the Jewish world as refugees, which, I guess, in a way we were.

“Kosher camp ended. I came back to San Diego to Chabad House. And Mr. X had decided that I was leaving for Israel more or less immediately. I mean, I wanted to go, but Mr. X was running around saying, ‘Pack your bags. Buy your ticket. Tell your school you won’t be coming back this fall. I’ll take care of the rest.’ I hardly had time to think. My mother was pretty amazed.

“Mr. X stayed up nights smoking and making calls to Israel, setting up things. ‘You’ve gotta go to some small, isolated kibbutz where you’ll learn Hebrew. Then you’ll have to go to yeshiva — religious school. But first you’ve got to learn Hebrew. Isolated kibbutz. The more isolated, the better.’ I’d protest. I’d start to get nervous. And Mr. X’d say, ‘This thing is bigger than you, kid. It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s gonna be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, but it’s going to be the best thing you’ll ever do. ’Tis a far, far better thing, et cetera, et cetera. Trust me.’ And he’d send me across the street to the 7-Eleven for a pack of cigarettes while he made more calls.

“And that was it. Before I knew it I’d landed the night before Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, at Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv and was taking a bus to Jerusalem. Mr. X had even drawn me a little map of how to walk from the baggage claim area to the bus stop in front of the airport. I stayed with friends of his for the holidays and a few days later I was on a bus to a religious kibbutz in northern Israel. Kibbutz Maale Gilboa.

“The kibbutz was very high on a hill that looked out over the entire Jezreel Valley. It was isolated. Beautiful and isolated. It seemed that the wind was always blowing. Since I arrived during the off-season — most volunteers go to kibbutzim during the summer — it was even more isolated. They gave me my own small apartment. Tile floor. Hot plate. Electric heater. Bed. Desk. Reading light. I woke up before sunrise, worked all day in the fields with the irrigation systems or in the aquiculture ponds catching fish — St. Peter’s Fish, carp, and a type of pike whose name I don’t know in English. At night I studied Hebrew. I made a vow to myself that I would speak no English while I was at the kibbutz.

“It was pretty lonely. I mean, I was this Southern Californian kid who liked to surf and there I was in northern Israel, catching carp, trying not to speak a word of English, a world away from everything I knew. Surprisingly enough, the religious part was the easiest. Maale Gilboa is a religious kibbutz, so living as an Orthodox Jew was what everyone did. You didn’t really even think about it.

“And although I didn’t really think about it very deeply, think about what I was doing and the way I was living, it had an effect on me. I was changing. About the fourth month into my stay at Maale Gilboa I took a bus to Afula, a city that isn’t known for much more than producing the best sunflower seeds in Israel. The bus traveled through the Jezreel Valley. It was a spring day. A sunny spring day. Maybe it was the crops. Maybe it was the weeds. I don’t know. To this day I don’t know. I was impressed by, in general, the beauty of the surroundings and it was on that day, on that bus ride, that was the turning point. I decided that I wanted to live in Israel.

“I finished my six months at Maale Gilboa and went to religious school on another religious kibbutz, Ein Tsurim, not far from Ashkelon, a city on Israel’s southern coast, not far from the Gaza Strip. I studied Talmud, the Bible, Jewish religious history. It was a program for beginners, completely in Hebrew, and my months on the lonely kibbutz in the north served me very well.

“After about a year and a half of religious studies at Ein Tsurim, I decided that it was time I return to my secular studies, so I enrolled at Bar Man University near Tel Aviv to study economics. I started in 1990.”

What happened next, the next big event, or “turning point,” in Wagner’s life involved, of course, his wife. Devorah came from a prominent family that originated in a town in northern Iran, Mashhad, a holy city for Persian Muslims. Devorah’s mother and father immigrated to Italy in the early 1960s, to Milan, the city where she was born. Like most Jews from Mashhad, Devorah’s family were in the diamond trade. At home, Devorah spoke Persian, Hebrew, and mostly Italian. When Devorah was 12, her family moved to Israel, to Tel Aviv. And maybe it was because of all this moving, of living so far removed from Persian-Jewish culture, Devorah finished high school, and had her undergraduate degree, and had no plans to marry.

“It was unheard of for a Mdshhadi girl to be in her 20s and unmarried. But I was 21, going on 22, and I wanted to continue my studies in psychology. I decided I wasn’t going to marry until I reached all my career goals. I wanted to do graduate work in sleep research at the University of Haifa.”

But Saddam Hussein had other plans. Devorah was single when the Gulf War started, when SCUDs began to fall on Tel Aviv.

“One Friday night, Shabbat night, during the war, our family had guests to our house. Very early Saturday morning, maybe 1:00 a.m., the sirens went off and we all ran to our safe room — the room that was sealed against a gas attack. My mother and father and I and all the guests went to the room, and we sat there in our gas masks. We waited and waited. We didn’t hear the all-clear. My father stood up to look out a window high on the wall to see what was happening.

“I had a strange feeling. I sensed something was wrong, and I grabbed my father by the ears and pulled him down away from the window. Just as I did that the window exploded. All the windows in our house exploded. A SCUD had landed about 50 yards away from our house. Glass was everywhere. We were terrified of nerve gas, of chemical warfare. But nothing happened. If I hadn’t pulled my father away from the window, he probably would have been hurt. The SCUD, it turns out, landed on the house of a relative of ours, but she wasn’t hurt. Eight houses were destroyed and 15 were damaged.

“After that I realized that life is too unpredictable. Life is too uncertain. It’s impossible to know what might happen. And so I decided that if I meet the right guy. I’ll get married.”

Wagner, mind you, while all this is going on, while the SCUDs are falling, while Devorah is deciding that marriage, after all, might not be such a bad idea, is crouched in a bomb shelter on the campus of nearby Bar Ilan University. He is crouched in the dark with Gashaw Sembatu, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel who had marched to the Sudan with his mother and five siblings. Sembatu, who helped his mother give birth to his youngest brother during their exodus from Ethiopia, who fended off Sudanese bandits, takes the SCUDs in stride. Wagner, on the other hand, the San Diego surfer, was less nonchalant.

“I kept waiting for the Patriot missiles. When the Patriots would go off, we’d feel them. The ground would vibrate and you’d hear a kind of whoosh. ” And so it was in this somewhat heightened emotional state, the general euphoria after the Gulf War, after Saddam Hussein had promised to reduce Tel Aviv to ashes and failed, that Wagner and Sembatu went on a school-sponsored trip to the Dead Sea. And it was in this somewhat heightened emotional state, the general euphoria of having saved her father from a faceful of Saddam Hussein-sponsored shrapnel, that Devorah happened to accompany a friend on the trip to the Dead Sea.

There is a question as to who noticed whom first.

On the Dead Sea shore, an unromantic place smelling of sulfur, bathed in a flat glare not unlike that of Southern California, Wagner noticed Devorah, heard her speaking Italian to her friend. Devorah noticed Matt, noticed that he was “tall, dark, and handsome."

At first Devorah thought Wagner was interested in her friend. Devorah struck up a conversation with Sembatu. Somehow, though, Devorah started to speak with Wagner, showed him her camera, which wasn’t working, and asked him if he was “mechanically inclined.”

Six months later they were engaged. Nine months later they stood under a chupah, the traditional wedding canopy, made of Wagner’s prayer shawl, in a vast wedding hall south ofTel Aviv. There were more than 400 guests from all over the world: New York, Los Angeles, Milan, and San Diego. Famous Persian Jews from all of Israel came to the wedding, including Moshe Katsav, then Minister of Transportation. There was much dancing and, in the rather heightened emotional state of such an unlikely wedding, a fair amount of tears. Wagner’s mother had quite unexpectedly lost a son to an uncertain life in the Middle East. And Devorah’s father had quite unexpectedly gained a son — Devorah was the only child her mother was ever able to have. Wagner, in the tidy fashion in which this story played itself out, gained, as a matter of course, the father he’d never had.

To make matters more complex, Wagner is certain that he saw the long-lost Mr. X at the wedding, although with all the confusion with the many guests, the wedding pictures, the lengthy meal, and even lengthier Persian dancing after the meal, it is impossible to be certain. However, Wagner is convinced that he saw Mr. X at the back of the wedding hall, very near the hors d’oeuvres table, with a bottle of Israeli whisky in his hand, flirting with a number of single Persian girls.

“I have no idea,” says Wagner, “how he heard about the wedding.”

But the spectral Mr. X was soon forgotten. Shortly after the wedding,

Devorah became pregnant. Nature took its course. Wagner began his internship at the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange under his father-in-law’s tutelage. Shira, the sleepless baby, was born.

This is how, then, Wagner came to sit in the steamy Tel Aviv apartment, dark circles under his eyes, even darker ones under his wife’s. The Coca-Cola is almost gone. The paper napkins have been worried into wormy threads. The stark overhead light beats down on the table. Outside, the bats whirl and shriek. The radio in the kitchen announces that Rabin will soon meet in Washington with Arafat.

Wagner rises from the kitchen table and walks to the balcony for some air. He lifts the yarmulke from his head and scratches underneath it his itchy, worried, father’s scalp. Although he’s 26 years old, he no longer looks like a very young man or like someone who ever surfed. The Southern Californian in him left his body a long time ago. He’s pale now. There are gray hairs at his temple, wrinkles barely starting at the corners of his eyes. He raises his long arms into the still summer air.

“It’s strange,” he says. “I never miss Southern California, which is strange because of the beauty of the place. Especially the La Jolla Coast. But I don’t miss it at all, which is strange, I guess.

“When I think of San Diego, I think of Balboa Park, because it kind of epitomizes San Diego for me: the weather, the palm trees, the green lawn. But at the same time it reminds me of a kind of drowsiness. I think that the past five years of my life overshadow the rest of my life. And the feeling that I think of when I think of San Diego, the feeling that comes to me, is one of drowsiness. San Diego is the drowsiness.”

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Five of us in a one-bedroom on 47th Street

Cars run fast from the light at the 805 to the light on Logan Ave.
Matt Wagner and daughter. It’s exactly things like the smoke tendrils that have worried him since he became a father.
Matt Wagner and daughter. It’s exactly things like the smoke tendrils that have worried him since he became a father.

The power plant’s acting up again,” Matt Wagner sighs, white large bats, coal-black and squeaky, wheel far above his head in the €ark sky. From where he stands on His apartment’s small (balcony, Wagner can see the plant’s ominous gray tower looming up from the northern Tel Aviv coast. Lights on the tower’s head blink green and red. LazyJ dense tendrils of white smoke drift from the tower’s mouth. The summer air is so still that the smoke tendrils don’t dissipate, they grow. '

In the early 1980s you may have seen Matt Wagner surfing off Law Street in Pacific Beach.

“Humph,” Wagner grimaces at the distant tower. “I’m going to have to call the plant in the morning. When the weather’s like this, when the air doesn’t move, they’re supposed to use low-sulfur fuel.”

It’s exactly things like the smoke tendrils, Wagner explains — air quality, quality of education, water quality — that have worried him since he became a father. From the balcony, Wagner can hear his wife, Devorah, murmuring to their daughter Shira, a nine-month-old baby who seems to grow and even thrive without ever needing to sleep.

"All of these Orthodox Jews. Beards. Long coats."

Wagner, tall, lanky, moves from the balcony and settles in the dining room lined with books:

Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, and Miami; a well-thumbed set of the Talmud; Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality; the Jerusalem Bible; Biblical commentaries, and commentaries on Biblical commentaries; books in Italian on Italian geography, books on psychology in Hebrew; books on economics in Hebrew, books on Persian grammar in English. It’s a strange mix, secular and religious, and Wagner, shiny-faced, sweating in the oppressive air, eyes the collection while Devorah tries unsuccessfully to coerce little Shira to sleep.

“I kept waiting for the Patriot missiles. When the Patriots would go off, we’d feel them."

Shira starts to cry. Devorah patters down the hall and into the dining room. She is petite, pretty, with very large dark eyes, and sweat trickles down her brow, little droplets of it glistening in her curly black hair.

“She won’t go to sleep,” Devorah says, making a helpless gesture with her small damp hands.

Wagner makes a tight smile. “We’re never going to sleep again.”

“It’s all,” Devorah chuckles, “Saddam Hussein’s fault.”

The bats wheel and squeak in the sky, the baby cries and cries, the power plant exudes tendrils of noxious white smoke. On this humid Mediterranean night, when the radio announces more and more incredible news of Rabin and Arafat, the world does seem a mysterious place, pregnant with unforeseen conclusions, unusual connections. In this atmosphere, the fact that Saddam Hussein should somehow possess an intimate affiliation with a restless Israeli baby does not seem altogether preposterous.

Devorah fetches a plastic bottle of Coke from the kitchen, sets it on the table, where it begins immediately to perspire. Sipping the Coke, mopping up the bottle’s sweat with paper napkins, under a relentless overhead lamp, Devorah and Matt tell their story, or, more particularly, Matt’s story, of how a Southern California boy, a San Diego boy, came to this hot Tel Aviv apartment.

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The story they tell may someday have an ending. For the moment, it has only a beginning and a rudimentary middle. So far, it is a story about what some people call destiny or what others call the way decisions play themselves out. And it is a story in which Saddam Hussein plays an unusual role. It is a story about war and religion. It is also a story about how some of life’s surprises are not unfortunate ones.

In the early 1980s you may have seen Matt Wagner surfing every summer day on his white longboard off Law Street in Pacific Beach. Or, on Friday or Saturday nights, as you wandered along Prospect Street in La Jolla, you might have seen him breakdancing in a shiny blue-and-red polyester jogging suit with a six-man multicultural crew. Wagner and his cohorts practiced their moves every week in the rec room of a La Jolla Baptist church, and on good weekend nights on Prospect Street, their efforts paid off and they’d make 40 or 50 dollars from the passersby who’d toss them quarters or dollar bills.

A few years later Wagner might have bussed your table at the downtown Spaghetti Factory, where he worked, made 30 or 40 dollars a night, hourly plus tips. He might have bussed your table and come home late, smelling of dishwater and grease. At home he’d eat a half-dozen sandwiches of tuna fish salad he’d mix up in a large bowl then devour along with a quart of milk. His mom slept down the hall. His father was dead.

(Wagner’s father died when Wagner was four years old. The thing he remembers when he thinks of his father is watching the tall man shave. He remembers the smell of Brut.)

And so Wagner lived with his mother in a quiet, fatherless house near the beach, a not atypical home in Southern California. Wagner was graduated from La Jolla High. He enrolled at San Diego State. Surfing, break-dancing, bussing tables, coming home at night to eat, study, fall into bed. Sleep. A not atypical Southern Californian life, and one that many people in the world might envy.

Wagner’s drowsy, agreeable, leisurely life would have continued in that same vein if Wagner had not started to stop by and chat with Shaya Eichenblatt, a rabbi who sat at a rickety card table in the student center at San Diego State. Eichenblatt was rowdy, sarcastic, a kind of Orthodox “youth outreach” rabbi who was good at making Wagner laugh. He talked to Wagner about Judaism, about school, and repeatedly invited him to Friday night dinner at the Chabad House on Montezuma Road, a short walk from San Diego State.

Wagner declined Eichenblatt’s invitations. He just wanted to learn a little more about being Jewish and wasn’t sure he was interested in observant Orthodox Jews. Wagner knew dimly that their lives revolved around a great many rules and prohibitions. Wagner only dimly understood what it meant to be a plain Jew. He had been bar mitzvahed, learned a little of the Hebrew alphabet. But that was it. At that time, he says, being Jewish didn’t mean more than “placing a great importance on education.”

The daily talks with Eichenblatt continued. At the same time Wagner began to feel he was ready to leave home. Eichenblatt suggested he move into the Chabad House, where the organization kept a few rooms that they rented for a very low price. Wagner accepted and moved to Chabad on Purim night.

Now Purim is an unusual Jewish holiday, unfamiliar to most non-Jews and to many secular Jews, that commemorates the story told in the Book of Esther. It Is the celebration of the deliverance of Persian Jews from certain genocide. Purim is also a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras, a time for wearing costumes, for dancing, for acting.up. In fact, according to Jewish law, on Purim one is commanded to get good and drunk. So, on the night Wagner moved into Chabad House, he was a little awestruck to see rabbis and party-goers dancing and singing, vodka and whisky flowing freely, all in the bare white room that served as the Chabad synagogue. The room was packed and hot, the singing and music were loud, children dressed as clowns and Persian kings raced between people’s feet, rabbis kicked up their legs and hooted.

“I had never,” remembers Wagner, “seen anything like it in my life. I had no idea Judaism could be so, uh, lively. ”

Wagner stood off to the side, more eager to watch than join in the fun, and he noticed, standing in the doorway, puffing a cigarette, a stocky bearded fellow whom Wagner has come to call Mr. X. Mr. X was laughing very loud at a joke he’d just heard and Wagner wanted to hear it. He approached Mr. X and asked if he could bum a cigarette. Mr. X obliged, offered his lighter, all the while rapidly lecturing Wagner on the dangers of cigarettes.

“If smoking’s so bad for you, then why do you do it?” Wagner asked, puffing on the borrowed cigarette.

Mr. X exhaled a cloud of Marlboro smoke. “I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting into.”

Mr. X was living at Chabad House, in transit, he said, on his way back to Israel, where he lived. He was always rushing around with a great sense of self-importance, although his life, Wagner noticed, showed no sign of organization or permanence. Mr. X’s room in Chabad House was empty of furniture, save for a foam mattress on the floor, an old door supported by milk crates that served as a table, many books, and on one wall, a large, beautifully executed acrylic painting.that depicted a long row of veiled Iranian women firing what appeared to be Lugers.

When Wagner asked about the painting, Mr. X explained, “Do you know what the Ayatollah called the Iran-Iraq War? He called it the ‘War for Jerusalem.’ It’s always good, son, to remember who your enemies are.”

In fact, Mr. X was five or six years older than Wagner, and calling Wagner “son” was only one of Mr. X’s annoying traits. He constantly lectured Wagner as if he spoke from a vast and worldly experience. He criticized the courses Wagner took at San Diego State. He criticized Wagner’s taste in music and clothes. He complained of what he referred to as Wagner’s “lack of seriousness.” It was maddening, but Wagner was intrigued. Late at night, when he returned to Chabad House from the Spaghetti Factory, stinking of dishwater, Wagner showed up at Mr. X’s door with a quart of milk, a large can of tuna, a jar of mayonnaise, and a loaf of bread. And while Wagner made and ate an enormous pile of tuna fish sandwiches, he questioned Mr. X about Judaism. Mr. X, who was an observant Jew, picked at the tuna salad, but ignored the bread because it wasn’t kosher, and answered Wagner’s questions and complained loudly about Wagner’s ignorance.

“Here you are,” railed Mr. X, “studying Spanish when you can’t even read a word of Hebrew.”

“Here you are,” hectored Mr. X, “reading Sylvia Plath when you can’t quote a line from Yehuda Amichai.”

“Ammy-what?” Wagner asked.

“Never mind,” said Mr. X. “Let’s go for a drive.”

“And that’s really how it started,” remembers Wagner in his sweltering Tel Aviv apartment. “Those long, long drives. We’d get in the car and cruise El Cajon Boulevard, all the way from La Mesa to where it intersects with Park. We’d drive for hours. I mean, I’d drive and Mr. X would criticize. It was really a programmatic, concerted effort on his part to change my mind, to change the way I looked at my life.

“He’d have me drive to Southeast San Diego and he’d point out things to me there. He’d lecture me about infant mortality rates growing higher as soon as you crossed University Avenue. He lectured me about how young black men would be arrested for doing things the San Diego frat boys did all the time. He’d have me drive to Coronado then drive back across the bridge to Barrio Logan, and he’d rant at me about privilege and poverty. And my head would be spinning.

“Then he’d have me drive someplace else, someplace that wasn’t depressing, out to the beach, to Torrey Pines. And we’d stand there, and it would be so beautiful, and Mr. X’d say, ‘Nice, isn’t it?’ I’d agree. And he’d say, ‘Well, son, there’s more to the world than this. You never really felt at home here anyway. If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up working at The Gap in some shopping mall.’

“I’d get so angry with him. That line about The Gap always infuriated me. Sometimes I’d go for a couple of weeks without talking to him. But I’d always end up back in his room, then back in the car, with him talking and talking. He didn’t really hate America. I see now he was just trying to get me to look at things — my life, San Diego — objectively. He was pulling me away from San Diego. From my easy life. And pushing me toward something else. He’d always say, There are things in this world that are so beautiful, you can’t even imagine your way to them. You have to see them. And you haven’t seen them yet.’ “I was pretty interested by what he said. He was religious, and his life interested me. All of the rabbis and the families surrounding Chabad interested me. Their lives were filled with Judaism. They kept Shabbat. They kept the holidays. They prayed three times a day. Being Jewish meant everything to them. It was a wonderful way of life that interested me, but I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t see myself living that kind of life.

“So, the school year dragged on, and so did my conversations with Mr. X and with the Chabad rabbis. And despite everything, I was still pretty determined to learn Spanish, and I had applied for a year-long study program in Spain. Mr. X, of course, thought this was ridiculous, a big waste of time. ‘Why don’t you go to Israel and learn Hebrew? You’ve got to go to Israel,’ he said over and over again.

“The school year was almost over and I had my interview for the year-in-Spain program, which didn’t go well. I was distracted, I guess. Kind of nervous. And shortly after the interview, the rabbis at Chabad invited me to participate in this summer education program in the Catskills. It was a kind of ‘kosher camp,’ a Jewish religious education program. They gave you stipend, room and board. The only thing you had to pay was your airfare.

“Everything started to happen very fast. I found out I hadn’t been accepted for the Spain program. Mr. X was elated. I decided to go to Chabad kosher camp. Mr. X said, ‘.See you when you get back.’

“Kosher camp was incredible. This entirely religious environment. All of these Orthodox Jews. Beards. Long coats. The Catskills. It was like leaving the United States. I was in culture shock. I remember that one Friday night, a community of Satmar chassidim near kosher camp invited all of us guys over for dinner. Satmar are Hungarians and they have a reputation for being the most insular Orthodox Jews, they don’t even mix much with other Orthodox Jews. So we go over for Friday night dinner and the little Satmar kids with the long side locks stared at us.

“It was rare for them to come in contact with secular Jews, and they didn’t speak English very well. They spoke Yiddish. One by one they sort of snuck over to us to look at us. They were fascinated. They looked at my Swatch watch. They looked at my clothes. They asked me where I was from, and when I said San Diego, California, it was like I’d said I’d come from the moon. They treated us very kindly, sort of delicately, as if we were kids who’d been kidnapped at birth and raised very far from Jewish culture and had been brought back to the Jewish world as refugees, which, I guess, in a way we were.

“Kosher camp ended. I came back to San Diego to Chabad House. And Mr. X had decided that I was leaving for Israel more or less immediately. I mean, I wanted to go, but Mr. X was running around saying, ‘Pack your bags. Buy your ticket. Tell your school you won’t be coming back this fall. I’ll take care of the rest.’ I hardly had time to think. My mother was pretty amazed.

“Mr. X stayed up nights smoking and making calls to Israel, setting up things. ‘You’ve gotta go to some small, isolated kibbutz where you’ll learn Hebrew. Then you’ll have to go to yeshiva — religious school. But first you’ve got to learn Hebrew. Isolated kibbutz. The more isolated, the better.’ I’d protest. I’d start to get nervous. And Mr. X’d say, ‘This thing is bigger than you, kid. It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s gonna be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, but it’s going to be the best thing you’ll ever do. ’Tis a far, far better thing, et cetera, et cetera. Trust me.’ And he’d send me across the street to the 7-Eleven for a pack of cigarettes while he made more calls.

“And that was it. Before I knew it I’d landed the night before Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, at Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv and was taking a bus to Jerusalem. Mr. X had even drawn me a little map of how to walk from the baggage claim area to the bus stop in front of the airport. I stayed with friends of his for the holidays and a few days later I was on a bus to a religious kibbutz in northern Israel. Kibbutz Maale Gilboa.

“The kibbutz was very high on a hill that looked out over the entire Jezreel Valley. It was isolated. Beautiful and isolated. It seemed that the wind was always blowing. Since I arrived during the off-season — most volunteers go to kibbutzim during the summer — it was even more isolated. They gave me my own small apartment. Tile floor. Hot plate. Electric heater. Bed. Desk. Reading light. I woke up before sunrise, worked all day in the fields with the irrigation systems or in the aquiculture ponds catching fish — St. Peter’s Fish, carp, and a type of pike whose name I don’t know in English. At night I studied Hebrew. I made a vow to myself that I would speak no English while I was at the kibbutz.

“It was pretty lonely. I mean, I was this Southern Californian kid who liked to surf and there I was in northern Israel, catching carp, trying not to speak a word of English, a world away from everything I knew. Surprisingly enough, the religious part was the easiest. Maale Gilboa is a religious kibbutz, so living as an Orthodox Jew was what everyone did. You didn’t really even think about it.

“And although I didn’t really think about it very deeply, think about what I was doing and the way I was living, it had an effect on me. I was changing. About the fourth month into my stay at Maale Gilboa I took a bus to Afula, a city that isn’t known for much more than producing the best sunflower seeds in Israel. The bus traveled through the Jezreel Valley. It was a spring day. A sunny spring day. Maybe it was the crops. Maybe it was the weeds. I don’t know. To this day I don’t know. I was impressed by, in general, the beauty of the surroundings and it was on that day, on that bus ride, that was the turning point. I decided that I wanted to live in Israel.

“I finished my six months at Maale Gilboa and went to religious school on another religious kibbutz, Ein Tsurim, not far from Ashkelon, a city on Israel’s southern coast, not far from the Gaza Strip. I studied Talmud, the Bible, Jewish religious history. It was a program for beginners, completely in Hebrew, and my months on the lonely kibbutz in the north served me very well.

“After about a year and a half of religious studies at Ein Tsurim, I decided that it was time I return to my secular studies, so I enrolled at Bar Man University near Tel Aviv to study economics. I started in 1990.”

What happened next, the next big event, or “turning point,” in Wagner’s life involved, of course, his wife. Devorah came from a prominent family that originated in a town in northern Iran, Mashhad, a holy city for Persian Muslims. Devorah’s mother and father immigrated to Italy in the early 1960s, to Milan, the city where she was born. Like most Jews from Mashhad, Devorah’s family were in the diamond trade. At home, Devorah spoke Persian, Hebrew, and mostly Italian. When Devorah was 12, her family moved to Israel, to Tel Aviv. And maybe it was because of all this moving, of living so far removed from Persian-Jewish culture, Devorah finished high school, and had her undergraduate degree, and had no plans to marry.

“It was unheard of for a Mdshhadi girl to be in her 20s and unmarried. But I was 21, going on 22, and I wanted to continue my studies in psychology. I decided I wasn’t going to marry until I reached all my career goals. I wanted to do graduate work in sleep research at the University of Haifa.”

But Saddam Hussein had other plans. Devorah was single when the Gulf War started, when SCUDs began to fall on Tel Aviv.

“One Friday night, Shabbat night, during the war, our family had guests to our house. Very early Saturday morning, maybe 1:00 a.m., the sirens went off and we all ran to our safe room — the room that was sealed against a gas attack. My mother and father and I and all the guests went to the room, and we sat there in our gas masks. We waited and waited. We didn’t hear the all-clear. My father stood up to look out a window high on the wall to see what was happening.

“I had a strange feeling. I sensed something was wrong, and I grabbed my father by the ears and pulled him down away from the window. Just as I did that the window exploded. All the windows in our house exploded. A SCUD had landed about 50 yards away from our house. Glass was everywhere. We were terrified of nerve gas, of chemical warfare. But nothing happened. If I hadn’t pulled my father away from the window, he probably would have been hurt. The SCUD, it turns out, landed on the house of a relative of ours, but she wasn’t hurt. Eight houses were destroyed and 15 were damaged.

“After that I realized that life is too unpredictable. Life is too uncertain. It’s impossible to know what might happen. And so I decided that if I meet the right guy. I’ll get married.”

Wagner, mind you, while all this is going on, while the SCUDs are falling, while Devorah is deciding that marriage, after all, might not be such a bad idea, is crouched in a bomb shelter on the campus of nearby Bar Ilan University. He is crouched in the dark with Gashaw Sembatu, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel who had marched to the Sudan with his mother and five siblings. Sembatu, who helped his mother give birth to his youngest brother during their exodus from Ethiopia, who fended off Sudanese bandits, takes the SCUDs in stride. Wagner, on the other hand, the San Diego surfer, was less nonchalant.

“I kept waiting for the Patriot missiles. When the Patriots would go off, we’d feel them. The ground would vibrate and you’d hear a kind of whoosh. ” And so it was in this somewhat heightened emotional state, the general euphoria after the Gulf War, after Saddam Hussein had promised to reduce Tel Aviv to ashes and failed, that Wagner and Sembatu went on a school-sponsored trip to the Dead Sea. And it was in this somewhat heightened emotional state, the general euphoria of having saved her father from a faceful of Saddam Hussein-sponsored shrapnel, that Devorah happened to accompany a friend on the trip to the Dead Sea.

There is a question as to who noticed whom first.

On the Dead Sea shore, an unromantic place smelling of sulfur, bathed in a flat glare not unlike that of Southern California, Wagner noticed Devorah, heard her speaking Italian to her friend. Devorah noticed Matt, noticed that he was “tall, dark, and handsome."

At first Devorah thought Wagner was interested in her friend. Devorah struck up a conversation with Sembatu. Somehow, though, Devorah started to speak with Wagner, showed him her camera, which wasn’t working, and asked him if he was “mechanically inclined.”

Six months later they were engaged. Nine months later they stood under a chupah, the traditional wedding canopy, made of Wagner’s prayer shawl, in a vast wedding hall south ofTel Aviv. There were more than 400 guests from all over the world: New York, Los Angeles, Milan, and San Diego. Famous Persian Jews from all of Israel came to the wedding, including Moshe Katsav, then Minister of Transportation. There was much dancing and, in the rather heightened emotional state of such an unlikely wedding, a fair amount of tears. Wagner’s mother had quite unexpectedly lost a son to an uncertain life in the Middle East. And Devorah’s father had quite unexpectedly gained a son — Devorah was the only child her mother was ever able to have. Wagner, in the tidy fashion in which this story played itself out, gained, as a matter of course, the father he’d never had.

To make matters more complex, Wagner is certain that he saw the long-lost Mr. X at the wedding, although with all the confusion with the many guests, the wedding pictures, the lengthy meal, and even lengthier Persian dancing after the meal, it is impossible to be certain. However, Wagner is convinced that he saw Mr. X at the back of the wedding hall, very near the hors d’oeuvres table, with a bottle of Israeli whisky in his hand, flirting with a number of single Persian girls.

“I have no idea,” says Wagner, “how he heard about the wedding.”

But the spectral Mr. X was soon forgotten. Shortly after the wedding,

Devorah became pregnant. Nature took its course. Wagner began his internship at the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange under his father-in-law’s tutelage. Shira, the sleepless baby, was born.

This is how, then, Wagner came to sit in the steamy Tel Aviv apartment, dark circles under his eyes, even darker ones under his wife’s. The Coca-Cola is almost gone. The paper napkins have been worried into wormy threads. The stark overhead light beats down on the table. Outside, the bats whirl and shriek. The radio in the kitchen announces that Rabin will soon meet in Washington with Arafat.

Wagner rises from the kitchen table and walks to the balcony for some air. He lifts the yarmulke from his head and scratches underneath it his itchy, worried, father’s scalp. Although he’s 26 years old, he no longer looks like a very young man or like someone who ever surfed. The Southern Californian in him left his body a long time ago. He’s pale now. There are gray hairs at his temple, wrinkles barely starting at the corners of his eyes. He raises his long arms into the still summer air.

“It’s strange,” he says. “I never miss Southern California, which is strange because of the beauty of the place. Especially the La Jolla Coast. But I don’t miss it at all, which is strange, I guess.

“When I think of San Diego, I think of Balboa Park, because it kind of epitomizes San Diego for me: the weather, the palm trees, the green lawn. But at the same time it reminds me of a kind of drowsiness. I think that the past five years of my life overshadow the rest of my life. And the feeling that I think of when I think of San Diego, the feeling that comes to me, is one of drowsiness. San Diego is the drowsiness.”

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