Yossi Gimplestein had always considered himself lucky. After all the itinerant Lubavitcher rabbi had since 1995 escaped a number of Palestinian attacks, including one when a gunman sprang from a grove of olive trees, stood in Yossi’s path, and leveled an AK-47 directly at him only to discover a round jammed in the chamber. Ask any Vietnam vet the likelihood of a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army Regular’s AK-47 jamming, and he will look at you as if you arrived from Mars. But Yossi Gimplestein knew he was protected by Hashem’s good graces. His birth was a near miracle itself. Yossi’s mother, Rita Himmelstern, survived the Holocaust because of a one-in-a-million German bureaucratic snafu: a Nazi census official’s typing error confused her with a nearby woman in Leipzig named Rita Himmelsten, a German Protestant exactly her same age. Before Nazi officials noticed the error, Rita Himmelstern made it out of Hitler’s Germany in 1939, part of the last wave of German Jews to escape certain death. Yossi knew that this incident could not have occurred by chance. His father’s survival was equally remarkable. Benjamin Gimplestein spent six brutal years in the Polish-Jewish resistance, fending off both the Wehrmacht and anti-Semitic Poles. He was but ten paces ahead of the Soviet Red Army and just ten paces before the Nazi lines, the elder Gimplestein used to lament. “I was exactly where Stateless Jews had always found themselves, between the Devil that we knew and the Devil that we would soon know,” Papa Gimplestein would say. Yossi’s parents met and married in Jaffe, Israel in 1949, and had him in 1952. Even before Yossi’s birth, the couple had immersed themselves in a tiny Lubavitch community, the patriarch’s favorite Hasidic sect because of its drinking, partying joyful embrace of life and an immanent God.
At eighteen, Yossi Gimplestein joined his elder brother, Yehudah, in Yeshiva studies, which both boys took to with great enthusiasm. At thirty, Yossi and his thirty-two year-old brother Yehudah founded the “Y Ask Y” Lubavitcher Traveling Mikvah Mobile. A converted camper, this vehicle bristled with bullhorns and gaudy signs that proclaimed the Lubavitch message as well as the impending, initial appearance of the Messiah. The “Mikvah Tank” as residents called it weathered a number of blown gaskets, flat tires, overheated radiators, and a few Palestinian rocks and bullets during the first intifada in 1987-1992. In 1998, the brothers moved to the Kiryat Arba settlement in the West Bank. From there, Yossi traveled to a number of settlements é- Gilo, Gush Etzion, Hebron, Shiloh é along a number of Jewish-only bypass roads designed for “security” purposes but whose effect was to hide Palestinians from view, as if to render them invisible. Of course, the incident involving the Palestinian gunman with the jammed AK-47 happened along one of these bypass “security” roads. So much for security, thought Yossi. But this he did not mind. For man-made security could not begin to approach that afforded by Hashem.
Mondays through Friday, Yossi would wake up around 5:00 AM, pray, have breakfast, and then assemble his math and religious texts to set about his daily chores as both math tutor and traveling rabbi. His pedagogical skills impressed many, including his clients’ parents, some of whom were certified teachers. Friday morning, October 31, 2000 (Cheshvan 5761) was just another day in the life of the Mikvah Tank commander, Rabbi Yossi Gimplestein.
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The alarm buzzer sounded louder than usual, in fact, its high frequency was not at all familiar, and its location on the right side of the bed was completely out of character, for Yossi always preferred it on the left. He liked to whirl his right arm across his chest, rolling his body leftward, and lunge for the alarm clock. Rolling this way gave him a few minutes of wake-up time to lie on his belly and contemplate the day. But this time a startled Yossi, already annoyed by the unfamiliarity of the alarm clock’s obnoxious buzzer, glanced to his right while flat on his back and turned it off. He stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Must have been so exhausted that I step out of my normal routine late last night,” Yossi thought as he arose. Then, to his bemused amazement, he noticed an Islamic Calender hanging from a nail in the door. This appeared to him as another prank by the local Sabra kids. It reminded Yossi of the time more than ten years ago when an Israeli teen placed Mein Kampf in his briefcase. The teen later became one of his best students and has maintained a friendship ever since. He wondered if perhaps some kids snuck into his visitors’ quarters while he slept. Students with a creative sense of dark humor were his favorite.
Alone in his kitchen, Yossi noticed the coffee was Arabic and the morning papers were all in Arabic. “This is quite an elaborate hoax,” he said to himself. Done with breakfast and prayers, Yossi headed out the door and to the Mikvah Tank parked just outside the settlement’s visitors’ quarters. He usually exited a settlement before the “Volunteers Guard,” themselves settlers, manned the entry points, and although the IDF assured them this was not necessary, the posts were often manned by 6:30 AM. But Yossi and his “Y Ask Y” Mikvah camper were on the road by 6:00 AM. As he headed west with the sun rising in his rearview mirror, Yossi noticed settler school children by the roadside, elementary-aged he reasoned, staring at him and then fleeing as if in horror. Now he could see them in his rearview mirror. Did they know about the pranks? Further down the road he saw again in his rear view mirror a scene of panic and frenetic behavior, only this time it was adults. Like tiny toy soldier figurines, these settlers were gesturing with their fists, and some appeared armed with M-16s, also waving, but in a menacing manner. Yossi drove on and then thought, “my God, what if there’s a terrorist clinging to the spare tire attached to the rear of the camper?” He hit the brakes hard and veered suddenly to the right, hoping to dislodge a potential terrorist free rider. Yossi flew out of the camper, ran several yards, and dove over a small roadside shoulder. Slowly, he peered over the rocky, sandy shoulder to see his vehicle abandoned. No Palestinian around here. Yossi stood up, his auburn beard covered in dirt, and thought, now I have joined the pranksters in making an ass of myself.
The IDF checkpoint was backed up as usual for the Palestinian drivers with their clearly marked blue license plates. However, the settlers always breezed right on past the posts, and Yossi seldom ever paid much attention to this dichotomy. Security necessitates this, he reasoned. But now Palestinian drivers, many perched on the hoods of their cars, drinking coffee as the traffic jam backed up for hundreds of yards and stressful minutes of delay, were frantically waving at him. “What’s with people this morning?” Yossi grumbled aloud. But before he could respond to their screams a wall of green suddenly appeared before the Mikvah Tank. Yossi slammed the brakes, thinking, oh no, there go the brake pads.
“You, get out of the vehicle immediately with your hands up!” A burly Israeli officer blurted out the order as seven Israel soldiers stood at the ready with their Galils and M-16s aimed directly at him. “Out now!” Yossi slowly opened the door and immediately crawled onto the road, a scene he witnessed Palestinian drivers perform dozens of times. “Spread your arms and legs, do it, do it now,” barked the officer. With his eyes nearly parallel to the flat road, Yossi thought his ant-like view of a world of giant Black and Brown army boots was the epitome of this most absurd morning. The soldiers patted him for weapons while others searched the Mikvah camper. “Sir, he’s clean,” yelled a solider so young he could easily have been one of Yossi’s pupils.
“Stand up and let me see your ID card,” said the IDF Captain. “Why were you trying to pass on the settlers’ road when you are a Palestinian, Mr. Ahmed Abu Ghassan?” inquired the Captain as he looked as Yossi’s ID card.
“I’m not Palestinian, I am an Israeli-Jewish citizen, born and educated in Jaffa. I am Rabbi Yossi Gimplestein. This must be part of a silly prank played on me by some of my pupils.”
The Captain, not at all amused, glared at him and sarcastically asked, “I suppose your students went to the trouble to acquire a camper adorned with Islamic messages and complete with a blue license plate?”
Yossi was stupefied. First the alarm clock, then the Islamic calendar, his personal ID, and now the camper? He looked over at the camper and saw that it was the same Mikvah Tank he and his brother had been driving for years. “May I see my ID card, please?” The Captain held it open but away from Yossi’s grasp. Sure enough, it had his photo and the name Yossi Gimplestein.
“Officer, I see myself, my name, Rabbi Gimplestein, and the camper you stopped is the “Y Ask Y” Mikvah mobile, one that everybody knows,” said a tentative Yossi.
“Sir, this Kaffir is playing us for a bunch of Asses,” said a lieutenant. Another young soldier chimed in: “This could be part of an elaborate deception. He’s either a funny guy or crazy, and most of these Arabs are crazy,” said the lieutenant. The Captain again looked directly at Yossi, and said: “I am letting you join the line at the end, and I am keeping my eye on you, funny man. You see that soldier over there, the one at the concrete rampart? He could split your nose hair with a bullet fired more than 400 meters away. And he is waiting to avenge the lynching of our comrades in Ramallah. You watch yourself.”
His card and keys to the camper returned to him, Yossi drove to the end of the Palestinian traffic line. His body was now covered in sweat and dirt; Yossi decided to do the one thing he had not done all morning, look into a mirror. He reached upward and tilted the rearview mirror in his direction. The familiar auburn hair appeared, with yarmulke in place, and then, in a sudden jerk, he saw his entire self, unchanged, still Yossi Gimplestein. What kind of sick joke are these Israelis, my fellow countrymen, playing?
But then, how could all of those Palestinians have been in on the cruel joke as well?
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“Nice to see our Palestinian ‘Jay Leno’ finally made it to the checkpoint,” bellowed out an Israeli soldier. “Well, Mr. Ahmed Abu Ghassan, you watch what jokes you give over in Israel because many of my countrymen have not patience to play your games,” said the young soldier who spoke with a heavy-Russian accent.
As Yossi drove past the checkpoint, he realized all of this could not possibly be a prank. And yet all appeared normal to him. Away from heavy traffic, away for large numbers of soldiers and civilians, except for a few Palestinian road workers, Yossi felt safe enough to play the Mikvah Tank’s sound system. He inserted and played one of his Lubavitcher musical tapes. Yes, the words were Yiddish and Hebrew, and the music was definitely Kletzmer. So why then were the Palestinian workers smiling, clapping, dancing, and joyfully waving? He turned off the tape. Yossi drove on for a half-hour, bewildered by it all. Surely now that he was in Israel-proper Israeli-Jews would recognize him. Oh yes, a group of religious settlers by a gas station and kosher deli. They would most certainly recognize him. Yossi grabbed his speaker mike and shouted out in Hebrew greetings that blared over the Mikvah Tank’s six jerry-rigged bullhorn speakers.
The settlers were ashen faced and aghast. “What arrogant mamzer dares to come by our station and blurt out hateful Islamic garbage!?” shouted an outraged American Jewish settler. “Get out of here you son-of-a-bitch! This is Israel and we’re Gush Emunim settlers who will show you a thing or two!” Yossi, stunned at such a hostile reception, trembled with mike in hand and tepidly said, “But I’m Rabbi Yossi Gimplestein, the itinerant rabbi of the ‘Y Ask Y’ Mikvah Tank.” Ahhhh!!!! Shouted a settler woman, her face filled with rage and utter revulsion. Another fainted into her husband’s arms. Four males walked slowly, menacingly towards Yossi.
The Bunyanesque American settler reached inside his pocket and drew out a 9mm Glock pistol. “You Muslim pig, you dog, you scumbag son-of-a-bitch! Rabbi Yossi Gimplestein was killed this morning at 5:00 AM. Perhaps you killed him!”
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The jail’s quarters smelled of urine and vomit, but at least Yossi was alone in his cell. He could smell the perspiration of the score of Palestinians held in the nearby cells, though their speech was barely audible. They conducted themselves with a quiet dignity that he of course deemed as natural, for were not all Arabs fatalistic?
“Mr. Ahmed Abu Ghassan, this is Dr. Elad Kaanon. He is an Army psychiatrist and he would like to ask you some questions,” said the Israeli Army jailer as he unlocked the heavy steel bars door. “Please, have a seat over there.” A hastily arranged desk with three chairs, two facing Yossi’s seat, awaited them in the next room whose door was open. Yossi sat himself down. He noticed it was now 11:59 AM. Perhaps when the clock struck noon, this entire nightmare, a perverse Cinderella story, would end.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Ghassan. First, let me remove your fear. You have not been implicated in the murder of Yossi Gimplestein this morning. Indeed, the IDF has arrested two suspects, and neither has ever heard of you. It has been relayed to me that you believe you are the late rabbi who went by the name of Yossi Gimplestein, and that you believe your camper is in fact the famous ‘Y Ask Y’ Mikvah tank, correct?” inquired the soft-spoken Dr. Kaanon. By his accent, Yossi knew the doctor was an American, but with a name like Kaanon, he probably had Sephardim background.
“Your parents, were they born in the Orient, I mean the Arab world?,” asked Yossi.
“Yes, Mr. Ghassan. They were born in Morocco. Perhaps you are feeling more comfortable with yourself, with your identity?”
“I’m sure I am Yossi Gimplestein, and when I look at my ID card or into a mirror, I see me, Yossi,” a slightly agitated Yossi answered. He could feel his heart sink while at the same time it’s beating accelerated. Yossi’s legs itched, a tingly, needle pinching-like sensation that felt as if his body was issuing a psychic-physical message to get up and move, maybe run.
“Have you been on any medication or under any psychiatric treatment lately?”
“No, absolutely not. I am a well-educated rabbi as well as a certified math tutor,” said Yossi. “But, but this day é” he trailed off.
The interview, or better, evaluation went on like this for nearly two hours. The IDF doctor prescribed Yossi with anti-depressant medication and instructions to return to his West Bank town of Aqraba. A specific note and clearance paper for IDF checkpoint soldiers was provided. Yossi was instructed to hand this over to the soldiers, who would otherwise consider his denial of being Mr. Ahmed Abu Ghassan a stupid game at best, a cover for terrorism at worst.
The return into the occupied West Bank was as laborious as leaving it earlier in the day. This particular IDF checkpoint was tense; a warning of a possible suicide bomber stewing impatiently in the traffic jam put the IDF soldiers on edge. Yossi approached the soldiers and handed them his ID card with the medical papers. A few minutes later, he was cleared through.
Yossi prayed while he drove eastward on a pothole pocked Palestinian-only road, but the prayers felt disingenuous, ineffective. He recalled how American-Jews who had made aliyah to Israel often talked about American TV shows, and one in particular called “The Twilight Zone” kept reminding him of his current predicament. Nonsense! That’s TV fantasy, and perhaps even a form of witchcraft or another example of Gentile paganism. After all, back in the States tonight, American kids and even adults would participate in Halloween. Maybe all of this was some well-schemed prank designed to undermine his efforts. Maybe there was an unknown competitor out to replace the Mikvah Tank. Perhaps this covert competitor paid the Palestinians to behave as if they saw a fellow Palestinian in Rabbi Yossi Gimplestein. Or maybe all of this was a form of psychosis, brought on by an undiagnosed form of schizophrenia. “My God, I may have a genetic form of mental illness,” Yossi thought aloud. Better that than to be a Palestinian, he concluded.
Yossi, or was it now Ahmed, faced a dilemma as he approached the dividing point, the ubiquitous “fork-in-the-road,” between Aqraba and the Shiloh settlement where he was visiting, as Rabbi Gimplestein. He decided to go for it, accelerating up the road to the hilltop settlement, the Volunteers Guard be damned. I’m Rabbi Yossi Gimplestein, and this is the “Y ask Y’ Mikvah Tank! As he neared the guards’ post, he could see the alarm in their faces. Sticking his head out the window, forgetting his mike and bullhorn speakers, Yossi shouted “I’m Rabbi Gimplestein, let me pass!” The settlers grew more terrified and desperate. “It’s the suicide bomber, cut him down,” shouted one of the settlers. Yossi reached for his mike, clicked it on and before he could utter another word, felt a force like he had never experienced. It was sudden and baleful, the sensation of a baseball bat or brick smashing his mouth, and the impact shock was followed by a warm liquid-like substance gushing all over his chin, neck, and chest. A strange dizziness was compounded by a relentless piercing tune in both ears. Yossi felt numb all over, and then cold, bitterly cold. He tried to move but none of his muscles responded. He tried to speak, but only guttural, gargling sounds emitted. The vehicle had run up a shoulder and stopped, with engine running. All Yossi could see now was a tunnel whose hole shrank ever so tiny until everything was black.
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The settlers later told IDF authorities that Mr. Ahmed Abu Ghassan appeared to them as wildly dangerous and that his camper, bedecked with gaudy Islamic signs and bullhorns blurting out the Shahadah was justifiably taken to be a bomb-laden suicide vehicle. One of the Chabad Hassid settler guards, a former USMC rifleman and marksman, fired three rounds of his M-16 directly into Ghassan’s mouth just as it appeared the Palestinian was about to set off the remote control detonator. IDF officials lightly reprimanded the five settlers involved in the “incident,” as it was officially described in the settler papers. Ghassan’s vehicle only contained Islamic religious materials and traditional Arabic sweets. “Don’t do it again,” an IDF Captain reportedly told the Chabad Hassid settlement guards. No charges were filed, and it was generally understood that although the IDF did not endorse vigilante justice, the shooting death of Ahmed Abu Ghassan was understandable given a number of factors: that morning’s murder of Rabbi Yossi Gimplestein, the growing tension stemming from the Al-Aqsa intifada, the suspicion that the Shahadah camper was a terrorist threat, and last but not least, when all was said and done, shooting Ghassan was acceptable. After all, he was just another Palestinian.
Mr. Michael Lopez-Calderon taught High School Social Studies in Miami, Florida for seven years until March 2, 2001, when he was asked to leave the Jewish Day school where he had taught for the past five years. Michael was asked to leave for having posted pro-Palestinian comments on Palestine Media Watch’s subscriber-only e-mail. He remains an activist in the Miami area.