Jacob used to watch the traffic on the south side of the roundabout of Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza on the island created by Eastern Parkway on one side and Flatbush on the other. It was the perfect spot to think. Close to where he worked, Park slope, and where he now lived, Crown Heights.
His apartment meant for two now had five people in it. Whole days were spent disinterestedly scrolling through Facebook on the couch as his roommates came and went, distracted him, and invited him to go with them to Prospect Park nearby. Jacob now worked as a sous chef at a well reviewed farm-to-table restaurant. The wages, hours, and clientele were all above average and by all accounts this was the good life. But every day around sunset, Jacob continued to find himself back at Grand Army Plaza to watch the traffic circle.
On the tip of the island he would stand and examine how the cars curved to turn onto the long broad roads. The curve, which allows Eastern Parkway to begin and Flatbush to continue also causes them to tilt. Wide or narrow, each curve looks slightly elevated from the ground. Jacob was not the first to notice that at this particular spot the cars looked like surfboards all haphazardly on top of a wave crest racing towards shore. Traffic is like the ocean with its own tides, currents, and if you are watching it from the shore—higher modes of thought. He went to Grand Army to think because it took too long to go to Far Rockaway.
The cars allowed his mind to wander and he could ask himself; why did I have that fight with my boss? What should I eat for dinner? Should I binge watch TV, try and read a book, or finally write that email to his friend working abroad in South Korea? If the metallic waves could offer him clarity about the small questions, maybe they could also help him tackle the big ones. Or at least this is what Jacob told himself. He had learned that you only get the right answers if you ask the right questions, but after that night’s initial inquiry of should I eat pasta or lentils for dinner he no longer knew what to ask.
It was not that Jacob felt lost as much as that he felt stuck walking in round-about traffic circles with the impossible hope that he would end up somewhere different then where he began.
In January he continued to go to the island, close his eyes and allow the rush of traffic to become the crash of waves. In February he found out his was not alone in congregating on the island to watch the cars go by. What at first he thought was an ultraorthodox Jewish sect, turned out to be a group that Jacob would call the army of the endless summer. Jacob first met them when he noticed a woman wearing a Hawaiian shirt under her down coat, bits of margarita salt on her stainless steel thermos rim, and wool socks tucked around the plastic column that keeps all flip-flops together. She was on the outside of a group who all turned out to be decked out in similar outfits. Jacob walked up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. From under her ear muffs that rested on long stark silver hair in a ponytail she pulled out her earbuds from which came the joyful sounds of surf-rock.
“Hi my name is Jacob. I come to Grand Army Plaza to watch the traffic. I’ve been coming here for months now, and have started to notice that you and your… group… also come here. Who are you?”
“Like you we come to watch the traffic, did you know that all roads are one road. That someone going through this roundabout could be on their way to Argentina”.
“Why do you also all come to Grand Army Plaza?”
“For the circle, most of New York City is a grid, straight lines every which way you go, it’s a rare find this circle”. “How do you know the other people here?”
“I don’t, we all just converged on this point one day. We have yet to talk to one another, but we are kindred spirits. I imagine, I wish that the traffic gives them peace just as it and my surf jams have allowed me to meditate”.
For a couple of weeks Jacob tried catch them whenever he could. He would bring a margarita filled thermos, stick his wool covered feet in a pair of flip-flops, and a pair of headphones. However, there was only so many cheerful guitar licks and lack in song-structure before Jacob had to turn it off. Now that he had been offered the promise of constant blue skies it was hard to return to reality. One where he had to sometimes work till 1AM washing dishes.
To his ears the cars still sounded like waves. But now instead of some Pacific paradise, these waves now conjured a cold and bitter New England beach. The waves of traffic no longer sounded like freedom but stark reminders of the sternness that comes with winter. Ultimately Jacob was reminded why folks in Southern California supposedly always say, “but I do miss the seasons”. With this he soon stopped joining the strange group, walked through the traffic circle without pause, and avoided the silver haired woman at all costs. The dance to the rhythms of an infinite traffic circle had given him no answers and this artificial endless summer started to leave his heart cold.
After Jacob’s discovery of the Grand army of the endless summer he took a trip to the holy land. Jacob refused to call the trip by its given name. He felt it was as if Sheldon Adelson, Benjamin Netanyahu, and all the settlers got together and thought of a name to disqualify hundreds of thousands of Palestinians right of return. On Jacob’s trip there were two kids with tattooed crosses on their back and another who identified as Irish Catholic. Yet, thanks 3 to blood line quotas designed by interns in D.C. these three people had more of a right to return than those on the other side of the Jordan. In psychoanalysis Jacob told his analyst his dreams of going to the airport only to get on a different flight. He could go anywhere he wanted for ten days and no one would be the wiser. “Wouldn’t that be easier?” he would think out loud, “then to deal with all the guilt I feel about this trip”. His analyst would ask, “why do you feel bad about this trip?” Jacob told him about Marni.
Marni thought that he should refuse to go as an act of protest against the state of Israel. To go meant that he condoned the behavior of Israel against the Palestinians. How when he told his coworker about the trip, she told him that a better name for it would be indoctrination vacation. Jacob also told his analyst about Harvey. Harvey said that he would never go since he identified as a diaspora Jew and not as one connected to Israel. As if the Jews in diaspora had nothing to do with the creation and support of the state of Israel. That somehow a diaspora could even exist without a supposed homeland.
“Wouldn’t it be better to hide out in Montana for ten days, then to get on a plane to Israel?”
“Perhaps, but you don’t even like the outdoors. So, what do you want?”
“I don’t know”.
“Then why not be open to the trip? If you feel so negative about it of course you are going to have a bad time. If you are even a little bit excited about it, then maybe you can see the good that could come from it”.
“Does becoming a fascist count as something good?”.
“Do you really think that is going to happen?”
Jacob’s analyst gave him that medicinal-blank-stare-look. The look that urges you to take the good with the bad. Jacob missed the old psychoanalyst. The one that would blame everything on his childhood and father. This ambivalence made him uneasy. After the session Jacob walked on Sixth Avenue and almost bumped into post-second scandal Anthony Weiner in tow with son. Jacob mumbled sorry, avoided eye contact, and walked on.
Maybe that is the Jew I should be, Jacob thought to himself. Out of control, not confused by my own desires (sexual or otherwise), but always about to send a dick pic because what else do you do with a boner? Then in the end when I become the butt of all jokes, publicly shamed, and held up as an example of what not to do and why, I feel pretty similarly to how I feel right now.
This line of thought exhausted him. Jacob thought about the conversation he had with a rabbi over tacos the week before. The rabbi gave him the spiel about how in the nineties, Jewish leaders realized that there was a demographic crisis. Jews were intermarrying, no longer practicing, and only knew Yiddish from Seinfeld. These leaders poured money into Jewish camps, JCCs, days schools, but nothing seemed to stop the exodus. Except one thing, when you sent young Jewish people on a free trip to Israel they all came back agreeing on one thing, I now feel more Jewish. After this spiel, Jacob asked the rabbi, “how long will the Jews be able to stem the tide of this demographic crisis?” The rabbi responded, “probably not for long.” “Will the world miss us?” “Probably not.”
When Jacob told Marni about this conversation, she pointed out that to put the trip in existential terms is exactly the problem. For so long, Israel has used the threat of its neighbors and the history of anti-semitism to legitimize itself. Jacob could neither argue with Marni nor turn his back on the rabbi.
Jacob ended up on the plane. His internal joke was I don’t want to be stuck with the bill without any of the story. The truth behind the joke was simply the belief that for good or for ill to be Jewish in the 21st century meant to be connected to Israel. That he could deny it, but this was something he wanted and needed to work through.
He dreamed of lonely shaded streets that he could explore on his own. He would mosey around hot and tired in the late afternoon and stumble across a stand that served the best hummus and the coldest juices. The woman who had owned and worked this stand for fifty years would offer Jacob a chair so that he could sit and chat with the old men, gossip about how it used to be. Through them he would learn the history of Israel, how all these different families used to live on this block. ‘Oh yes, soandso loved to dance to music at nights,’ and ‘we all got along, no matter race or religion’. This was the Israel that seemed promised to him. What he did not expect was that they would have no time to explore on their own. That they would have more time to explore three different malls across the desert then the rumored cosmopolitan streets of Tel Aviv or the stone alleyways of Jerusalem. His group was herded on and off their tour bus and only allowed to go to trip sanctioned locations. Before they got to the Western Wall the group was asked to follow tradition and write prayers on strips of paper. Jacob wanted to pray for world peace, for a two-state solution, or for his family to continue to be in good health, yet none of these things felt right. His only wish was to be left alone. So he wrote, please give me the strength to not get back on the bus. To run away. Let me be lost for at least a few hours, and walk around this city in attempt to find food, shade, and peace of mind. He felt good when he inserted the slip in a crack of ancient the wall. Jacob hoped that his prayer might be different than the thousands that found their way there.
Of course Jacob’s prayer was futile. To take action would be to step out of line and he could not bring himself to cause anxiety or panic in any of the trips leaders. To act out his desires against the group only made him ask, why am I better than anyone else on this trip? Jacob was convinced that everyone else also held a secret desire to run away. That if the bus broke down they would be just as happy to run through the desert and never look back. If he rebelled, then they should all rebel but he did not have the courage to cause trouble in this little tribe. Instead he remembered his prayer, wrote it down in his notebook, and took it with him to soothe his wounds of cowardice.
The trip got worse. the Bedouin tent they stayed in before the climb up Masada was a theme park run by Israelis who hired Bedouins to serve coffee and talk about how well the Israelis treated them. Masada was no better. It felt like a fascist factory. Thousands of young Jews walked up all at once to talk about martyrdom for the cause. At the top of the mountain, Jacob imagined himself as a part of the Jewish rebellion at Masada two thousand years earlier. While the rest of the other rebels sacrificed their bodies for the Jewish cause, he would feign suicide and play dead until a Roman found him. He would surrender, ask to be taken back to Rome, be made into a slave, assimilate into Roman society, and become apart of history. Fuck the cause of Judaism against all others. If the lesson of Masada is that Jews should destroy their bodies before the enemy can, then we do a grave disservice to most of Jewish history.
At a McDonald’s in a run down mall they met the Israeli soldiers who would travel with them the rest of the trip. The soldiers, all tan, good looking, and masculine, talked about how happy they were to hang out with American Jews. To show them what Israelis were really like. So far all Jacob could discern is that Israelis liked french fries and Mcflurries just as much as anyone else. Although at the McDonald’s someone had hung a particularly nostalgic piece of art. The scene contained an Americana sunset only seen on screensavers in mechanic shops or in diners in the worst part of Indiana. In front of a lake tucked into the mountains there is a 1950s convertible. The car sits empty on just watered dark green grass and next to the original golden arches. Its occupants are probably in front of the car enjoying a perfect picnic of cokes, burgers, and fries. They have just graduated high school, well on their way into the capitalist machine, and they have the world before them.
The next day Jacob’s fears of indoctrination vacation became palatable when the group with the Israeli soldiers visited Mount Herzl. In the men’s room before the cemetery, Jacob watched the Israeli soldiers groom themselves. They fixed their moustaches and parted their hair. One could say that soldiers should show respect in front of their fallen comrades. Others could say they wanted to look nice for the American girls who would later cry on their shoulder and hold their hands as they walked around the bucolic cemetery. The use of grief in the larger machinations came to the fore when they stopped at Daniel katz’s grave. Daniel a boy from Minnesota left America and all of its peace to come to Israel and join the IDF. He was shot in the Lebanon war of 2006, we know it is sad, but he now represents how all Jews of the diaspora can give more to Israel, how the “war” makes good men suffer. Piled on his graves were talismans from other groups: Twins baseball caps, rocks, flowers. Tears flowed and the soldiers had a reason to look good.
That night at the youth hostel it was not mount Herzl that Jacob remembered most. It was the painting from the day before. He turned it over in his mind, it’s a sign, a harbinger of something. But he did not quite understand. So far in Israel all he had found were symbolic rebellions against what they witnessed and experienced. The painting was the first thing he felt comfortable saying yes to, he wanted to be there not here. This Americana photo was oddly the Israel of his dreams.
Where Jacob was feeling awakened, where he felt promise and hope, was not Israel, but this photo of Southern California.
To call the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv a road is a lie. It is more of a massive concrete superhighway, which does not wind through the hills as much as bash through them. Jacob looked out the window of the crummy tour bus, while construction on both sides of the highway seemed to want to turn all the desert into one black tarmac. Israel’s infrastructure dream appeared as a plan to turn all its land into one giant military base. To protect its ever smaller Jewish population Israel must become a lone wolf at sea.
The group bus cruised along the thick black asphalt as if everything was okay and it was here that Jacob had his first religious experience. He was so sunburnt he would accept anything, but instead of discovering his inner love for Israel, he discovered Pet Sounds. Jacob’s discovery felt right at home with the place’s long history of mystical revelations. Just as the early Christians only heard about the deeds and never saw Jesus, Jacob did not actually hear the album while in Israel but heard about it through a second hand source and somehow understood its power. That fateful day on the back of the bus, Jacob decided to ask Simon about his tattoos.
Simon, the skater with the high socks, vans, and sailor Jerry tattoos. Simon and his friend Jeremy were the kind of people who enjoyed doing rap squats in front of holy sites. They would bend down at the knees and put their hands in a prayer pose. Jacob pretended to find this obnoxious, but really it attracted him to Simon. The rap squats meant they were on the same team. That this skater understood the weirdness and indoctrination of the trip. The group leaders would laugh whenever they posed, but were clearly annoyed with their lack of respect. Unsure of how to approach someone who both wore a literal heart on their sleeve and seemed to fervently expect you never to ask about it Jacob was a little confused. However, with nothing better to do on the bus, but watch the sand turn into into asphalt Jacob sat down across the aisle from Simon.
At first they just nodded at each other, and then Jacob abruptly spoke, “tell me about your tattoos”. Before Simon got to the history of his own body. He explained the story of tattoos in general. First navy sailors got them, and then bikers, and then bikers brought them across the country. That is why California style tattoos can be found in every parlor from Riverhead to San Bernardino. “So what about the smaller tattoos?” Jacob asked. “Well those are Friday the thirteenth ones, parlors will give you small and simple ones if it is Friday the thirteenth. For people with a lot of tattoos they are mostly used as fill ins. To add color or a design to a larger piece. “What about that one written in script?”
Despite the square questions Simon took Jacob seriously enough to answer, “Oh that is a Beach Boy’s lyric. It says, I Just wasn’t Made for These Times. This is how I always felt in high school, college, now. That even if I don’t fit into a certain world maybe I just need to be somewhere else”.
This entire trip Jacob could not find the words to describe his discomfort and suddenly here they were. From Brian Wilson’s mouth, To Simon’s leg, and to Jacob’s eyes and ears. Here was the phrase that described how Jacob felt. Simon continued, “Everyone always thinks the Beach Boys are about school spirit and endless summer, but have you ever heard Pet Sounds?” Jacob had to shake his head in embarrassment. “Well once you get home and listen to the album, you will understand why I got the tattoo”. Jacob did not have to return home. He already got the essence of what Simon meant. That although he had chosen to come to Israel, no great love for this supposed homeland emerged. Only a dissatisfaction that went beyond a normal twenty-something ambivalence.
Maybe Harvey and Marni were in part to blame, but something else gnawed at him. How Israel had been repackaged so that all conflict and problems could be glossed over. That they could drive through settlement territory without any larger discussion of what this meant. Despite the constant propaganda, tanned women, and pretty good falafel, this simulacra of Israel had not worked on Jacob. For a people so concerned with history and tradition by the end of the trip most of this felt glossed over. Yet was this also not true for how Brian Wilson’s generation felt growing up in the suburbs of Southern California? That whatever had been there was now gone. Fresh starts and new beginnings were the words of the day, yet something felt wrong about these times. For Jacob- like the Beach Boys before him, and Hamlet before them- time was out of joint.
On the penultimate day of the trip Jacob’s unease felt better than the alternative: the mega event. The event- held in an amphitheater in Caesarea built by Herod-already uses history and architecture in a somewhat fascist way. Although great empires have come and gone, the great state of modern Israel remains, opening its tender arms to all its birthright groups who have labored (gotten drunk) through Israel the past ten days. Here, Jewish Youth, sit on these ancient stone benches and be entertained by a confluence of rightwing politicians, pop-culture, and military theatrics. All this is yours now.
Jacob sat there in disinterested disgust while Mike Huckabee introduced Sheldon Adelson who in turn introduced Benjamin Netanyahu. As Netanyahu spoke Jacob’s disgust turned quickly to fear. Netanyahu urged everyone to go home and tell them the truth about Israel. Tell them that you were safe in a bus in the middle-east for ten days. Respectful applause, and then fireworks. A mediocre Israeli hip hop group came out and tried to get the crowd dancing while soldiers twirled the Israeli flag. At this point everyone in his group just wanted to go home.
Pet Sounds changed Jacob. Good art reflects the outside world. Or as they say life imitates art. In comparison Pets Sounds is life and the outside world. In under 36 minutes it covers the entire emotional state of an individual and their journey. Along the way we hear bike bells, dog barks, trains, and instruments never heard before. In sound and spirit it demonstrates some of the best parts of the sixties. Everything is art and can be manipulated, but that does not mean you should just stare at a wall or listen to the noises outside your window. Although that is not so bad either. If you want to create the perfect pop melodies you don’t have to dumb the music down. In fact you can make it more complicated. Throw a folk song in there add some twists and turns and all of a sudden there you are two thousand miles away from Israel or Crown Heights or any other spot on the earth.
Jacob played Pet Sounds on his pleather portable record player. Each night he would have the same dream. Jacob and an unnamed girl were in a Jew canoe. You know, those big bovine Cadillacs, Dodges, and Chryslers that Detroit made in the late eighties and early nineties. They were suicide machines, death wishes- which says something about the elderly Jewish people who drove them, the city that made them, and maybe even Jacob’s dream itself. While in this rust ridden Jew Canoe Jacob and the girl drove up the Long Island Expressway. They went eighty, banged on the ceiling to every drum beat, and sang accapella matching the Wilson brothers at every pitch. They drove to the most Eastern tip of Long Island to catch the sunset. At the tip, where the sound drains into the ocean there is a strong current. In his dream Jacob and the girl would collect all the junk on the shore and throw it into the center of the current. They would throw themselves into its center. And when they swam back to shore, which they would miraculously do, they would be met by bike bells and dog barks. They would be met by too much joy.
Sam Jaffe Goldstein is a bookseller living and working in Los Angeles.