Travels with Mickey

Travels with Mickey

Local man, child of the 60s, revisits Israel, recounts old stories


Mickey Gilbert of Montville is the great-great-nephew of Sholom Aleichem.

That’s not at all the point of his story; in fact, it’s an afterthought. He’s not entirely clear about which Rabinowitz married which Joseph, although he does know that his mother’s mother, a Rabinowitz, married a Joseph, who married a Boikess, who married a Gilbert.

But sometimes genes are strong in families. Mickey is a confirmed, unstoppable, hilarious, far-reaching, most likely compulsive story-teller. His great-great-uncle, whose real name was Solomon Rabinovich, would be proud.

The story he’s most interested in telling right now is about his two trips to Israel, almost 50 years apart; what’s the same, what’s different, how he’s the same and how he’s different, how the world is the same and how it’s different, what he loves, and what causes him some ambivalence.

Hilda and Sid Gilbert
Hilda and Sid Gilbert

Mickey’s story can start with his parents, Sid and Hilda. He was born in Hempstead, on Long Island, but when he was a child the family moved to Passaic, where his father was the program and physical education director at the YM-YWHA of Clifton/Passaic. Mickey spent a lot of time at the Y’s camp, which his father ran. Clearly, he was a natural there.

Mickey went to college at the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, majoring in psychology. Through his father’s work, and his work for his father, he knew that he wanted to work with children, although he wasn’t yet sure how. He tells a story about coming home one summer to be a counselor, and about how his bunk put on “The Wizard of Oz.” He became close to one camper — his name was Joel, Mickey said — and “he and I became good friends.

“The end of camp is always sad,” he went on. “On the last day, Joel came up to me, and he looked at me, and he quoted ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ He said, ‘And you, Scarecrow, I’ll miss you most of all.’” That, of course, is what Dorothy tells the newly hearted Scarecrow just before the wizard tells her he can take her back to Kansas. It’s the final goodbye to a very real friendship. “It still brings tears to my eyes,” Mickey said as he told the story; that was demonstrably true. He teared up. (He does that often, it turns out.)

“So I got home to my parents house, laid down on the couch, and it stayed with me. I said that I would spend my life with kids. I knew that I wanted to work with kids.”

So he did. He spent a year as a probation officer in Paterson, helping kids who needed him badly.

But Mickey was born in 1947. It was the 60s. “I always had a yearning to see the world, and I was very much a child of the 60s,” he said. “The world was important to me.”

So Mickey Gilbert “saved enough money to buy a motorcycle in England,” he said. In those way-pre-Internet days, he found a motorcycle shop in Wayne, fell in love with a motorcycle, ordered it, paid for it — and then went to London to pick it up.

During the time that he worked for the motorcycle, “I would go to Wayne, to the shop, and I would bring my lunch, and I would bring it to the store and I would sit in the seat of the motorcycle that was like the one that I was buying, and I would eat my lunch,” he said. The owners and the staff of the shop were patient and long-suffering.

This is Mickey’s motorcycle, a blue top-of-the-line BSA.

So in the spring of 1971, Mickey quit his job, and he and Stanley Spero, who then was in law school and now is a Boston-area lawyer and still Mickey’s best friend, took off for England. “It was our first time abroad,” he said. Stanley also had ordered a motorcycle; the two guys picked them up and their adventures began.

The motorcycle, which now sits in Mickey’s garage, was a blue BSA. The initial stands for Birmingham Small Arms; it was made by a company that once specialized in weapons. The motorcycles were big and powerful for their time — “sort of like Harleys today,” Mickey said — and they drew attention to their riders.

“We went all over England and Scotland,” Mickey said. “We slept on farms and in fields. People were so beautiful to us. We were these two young guys, he was pretty clean-shaven and I had a beard, and people were so nice to us! They let us sleep in their barns.”

They were hippies, Jewish hippies, innocents abroad, exploring the world, and the world smiled at them.

They left the British Isles and rode through France, Belgium, and Italy.

A postcard home to "Gram."
A postcard home to “Gram.”

“We were nice,” Mickey said. “People were lovely, and we would help them. Somewhere in France we rode around a corner, and there was this truck that pulled up on the sidewalk. That was not where it was supposed to be. There were thousands of bottles of wine all over the street, and lots of them had broken. We looked at each other, and said yes, in France the streets do flow with wine.

“We helped the guy pick up the bottles that hadn’t broken, and we had such a good time, and of course he gave us a whole bunch of bottles.

“And of course we remember the next few days so well…”

As the fall began Stanley went back to law school, and Mickey continued his adventures alone. He was able to live in an apartment in Paris for a month, and “I toured Paris by myself,” he said. “I had a little French hat, and I spoke some French, and I am an artist — I paint and I draw — and I bought a giant table and I sat in front of the Eiffel Tower drawing the people and the tower. Some American tourists came by and said, ‘Look! An artist!’ And I didn’t say that I really was from Long Island.”

But then, after that month, about four months into his trip, Mickey “started feeling sad,” he said. “I thought that I needed a break. I had to go someplace where they’d just take me in. Some place that would feel like home.”

He knew where to go. It was just so obvious. “It was so clear! Israel. I had to go to Israel.

“So I put my motorcycle on a ship, a passenger ship, and I sailed to Israel.”

It was 1971.

A postcard home.
A postcard home.

“I got off the boat in Haifa, and I looked up, and there was my motorcycle, being moved across by a crane, in a gigantic net. They put it on the dock, and I got on it, and I toured Israel.

“It was the biggest motorcycle anyone had ever seen in Israel,” he continued. “Whenever I pulled up anywhere, for gas, for tea, people would gather around to look at it. It was like someone had pulled up in a Rolls Royce. It was like I was famous.”

There is a picture of Mickey Gilbert from this period that shows him looking like a hippie Don Quixote, young, bearded, fresh-faced, with a spaghetti pot on his head, like a mildly updated, aluminum version of the golden helmet of Mambrino. “I used that spaghetti pot for a helmet,” he said. “And I also cooked spaghetti in it.”

Which brings up the question of what his parents thought of his travels. “My father, being a social worker, was very concerned,” he said. “My mother loved it.” He was able to talk to his parents once in the 16 months he was away. “You had to set up a time in the post office three hours in the future for a phone call,” he said. “It cost a fortune.” There was no way to arrange it with his parents, so if they were out shopping, say, or in the backyard, or just not able to get to the phone in time, they were all out of luck. “There was just one cable, one very thick cable, going under the ocean, and all the calls went through it,” Mickey said. “Or at least that’s what they said,” he added. “I have no idea if that’s true.”

On the other hand, he did write home, and his parents wrote to him, although it was not so easy. Letters had to go to the local American Express office. But his parents kept the letters he wrote to them, and he has them now.

Mickey had adventures in Israel, of course, including the time he unknowingly drove into what must have been the West Bank and was ushered out by uniformed officials who told him that he should move very carefully, because he was in a minefield.

He went to stay at a kibbutz; he found it through an agency in Haifa. “Things were less complicated then,” he said. “I just went there, everybody knew I was a tourist. It was mishpacha.” It was family. “They sent me to Kibbutz Evron, north of Haifa, right outside of Nahariya. A beautiful little town.”

He worked in the gardens. Because he already knew how to ride a motorcycle, he was considered to be a natural at driving a tractor, and he was. “And then they said to me ‘Do you keep kosher?’ and I said no. They said ‘We raise pigs,’ and I said ‘How do you raise pigs?’ and they said ‘In an Arab village. Would you help on the pig farm?’ And I said sure.

“So we got on a truck, and went to the Arab village, and there were two pens, and in between the two pens was a cement wall, about waist high, and there were a bunch of pigs on one side, and no pigs on the other. The gentleman said that we were going to geld the pigs, to keep them from being too difficult. So, he said that we were going to grab the pigs — -they weren’t tremendous yet — and ‘you will grab one leg and you’” — pointing to another volunteer — “‘will grab the other, and you will throw it over the wall…”

“I’m not squeamish, particularly, but I said ‘And I go home now…’”

He didn’t. He stayed for that procedure, “but I only did that one once,” he said.

The musical “Hair” played in Tel Aviv when he was on the kibbutz, and he went with kibbutznicks to see it. “There is a scene in ‘Hair’ where the actors sing ‘My Eyes Are Open.’ It’s about kids standing up for what they believe is. And the people onstage are naked. They so strongly believe in what they are doing, it gives them so much power, that they are wiling to stand totally naked in front of you.

“As a college graduate, as a student, as an American, I had beliefs in the power of peace. And during the show, when the actors stood naked in front of the Israeli audience, the rest of the audience didn’t see it the way that I did. They didn’t enjoy it.

“They booed.

“And I got it. I got that Israel was fighting for its life.” This was during the Vietnam War, so antiwar sentiment in the United States was strong, “and I understood that in Israel, they weren’t antiwar because they had to fight for their lives.

“I am very pro-Israel, but I was also antiwar. I could see the difference.”

Eventually, it came time for Mickey to leave Israel. “At first I thought I would go to Africa, because I love animals, but I couldn’t travel there because I had an Israeli stamp in my passport,” he said. “So I sent my motorcycle home, and went to Greece, and hitchhiked from Greece to India, where my adventure continued.”

Mickey spent months in India. Not only does he paint and draw, he also is a musician, and “I bought a sitar in the same shop where George Harrison bought his,” he said. He stayed in Goa, on the west coast, where the Portuguese had settled, and in Cochin. He went to an animal preserve; after a conventional and disappointing tour, he tried again, with a guide named Nyah, who was “tall, thin, with a very long staff, who spoke very little English,” he said. The two walked into the jungle and got to a meadow. “I said ‘Where are the elephants?’ and he said ‘They are coming.’ And then he said ‘Ssssshhhh’ and he pointed, and I listened, and eventually I heard a thrashing from the other side of the forest.

“And then the elephants came, and I was so excited that I ended up walking toward the meadow, and he grabbed me back. And I said ‘No. I’m okay,’ and I took a few more steps, and then I heard a trumpeting from the elephant. He pulled me back. The elephant had got a whiff of me. The man started to walk toward me, and the others made concentric circles around the smallest ones. When he pulled me back he saved my life.”

After India, Mickey went to Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In Herat, Afghanistan, he made friends with a man who had a shop selling Afghan coats — the style was popular in the West then. The shop was named the Fur Peace. “He took an animal skin and made it into the shape of a peace sign,” Mickey said.

“In Herat, I looked out my window and saw incredible things,” he continued. “Things were run by camel power, and by donkeys. There was a gristmill powered by a camel. I had gone back to biblical times.

“And then I hitchhiked from Heart to Kabul over the Khyber Pass. It’s the only way to go. I went by bus. They said to be careful. It’s lawless there. If you leave the bus and they see you, looking like a tourist, they will kill you.” He did leave the bus — but didn’t go very far from it.

He survived all this time on the money he had saved in New Jersey, from the occasional odd job he took, and mostly on the fact that everything in the East was very cheap. The Afghan unit of currency, also called the Afghan, was worth a penny, he said, and food cost just a few Afghans. “And I was young,” he said. He was not looking for luxury.

“And then it was time to come home,” he said. “I had enough.” He flew to Amsterdam, sold some turquoise he had bought in Mashad, Iran, and used that money for his plane fare home.

Mickey has had a good life since then. Like many middle-class Jewish hippies, he settled down for a conventional run, although his creativity makes pure boring normalcy impossible. He had a 44-year career as a guidance counselor in Passaic High School, and he has continued to run the private college counseling practice he began many years ago. He and his wife, Nancy, have two daughters, two sons-in-law, two granddaughters, and two grandsons. He and Nancy live in a lovely, eccentric 170-year-old farmhouse surrounded by bright gardens and huge green trees. (It’s the Jacobus farmhouse, local historians might want to know; the Jacobuses were an influential local family.) He is a longtime member of the Pine Brook Jewish Center, the Conservative shul right down the road from him, and he teaches a Hebrew High School class there. He runs workshops for high school students about Jewish identity and how to be Jewish on campus.

He and Nancy have traveled together, just about as much as most longtime married couples have, but they never have gone to Israel together. In fact, although one of their brothers-in-law is Israeli, she has never been to Israel, and he had never been back — until last October.

Mickey had planned to go to Israel to meet his brothers-in-law — Ron Abliah, the Israeli, and Fred Winograd, now of California but originally from Jersey City — and he had even managed to score a free ticket. He was given an aliyah at shul in honor of the trip, and he carried a plastic bag full of notes from friends to stuff into the Kotel once he got to Jerusalem. He was excited when he got to the airport, and even more excited when, many delays later, he finally was able to get on the plane.

But the plane took off, turned around and landed again, sat on the tarmac for a long time, and then the passengers were told to deplane. To get off. The flight was canceled. Mechanical problems. “I went back home, and my spirit of adventure was gone, Mickey said. “I had lost it.

“I lost my spirit. I came home and kicked my duffle bag. And Nancy said, ‘Mickey, you have to go to Israel. Don’t worry about the ticket. Don’t worry about the money. You have to go.’”

So he did. “I found my inner Mickey,” he said.

Mickey had a wonderful time in Israel. He’d never stopped being a Zionist. But he also learned a little bit about the other side.

“My brother-in-law Ron is very involved with film, and he’s very liberal and open-minded,” Mickey said. “He became friends with a filmmaker, Leila Sansour, who took us on the other side of the wall.” That’s the border wall that runs down the Green Line, set up to keep Israelis safe from terrorism, loathed by the Palestinians on the other side, effective at its task.

“It was a tour from the Palestinian point of view,” Mickey said. “It was eye-opening. People don’t usually see this kind of stuff, and when you see it you sort of understand what they are going through.

“There was a school, and when kids look out of the window there all they see is a 30 foot wall. There are olive groves on the other side of it, but they can’t see them.

“And I saw what the Palestinians had to do to cross to the other side of the tunnel, and I was sympathetic to them.

Sections of the wall dividing Israel and the West Bank are covered with graffiti.
Sections of the wall dividing Israel and the West Bank are covered with graffiti.

“I also was very sympathetic to the Israelis. I understood their need for the wall. I understand Israel’s need to survive. But I also saw how the Palestinians’ daily lives have changed. I understand the politics of it, but there is such a human factor. Every man has his own little world, and it has to work for him. The big picture is not always what every person can see. I met a man who said I can’t go to my olive farm anymore. I can’t raise my goats. This is a man who needs to live.

“And on the other side of the wall, the Israelis say ‘My children need to be safe. They need to be able to get to school, and to know that there will not be violence or terror.’ Children have to know that no one will throw a bomb at them.”

It brought up memories of the time he saw “Hair” in Tel Aviv, when he responded as an American and the Israelis responded as Israelis, out of similar instincts but entirely different lived histories.

Ms. Sansour has made a film, “Open Bethlehem,” about the wall, and about Bethlehem. “The film’s not as much pro-Palestinian as it is pro-Bethlehem,” Mickey said. “It’s about what the wall has done to Bethlehem.”

Bethlehem, as the home of Jesus, is “a tremendous tourist spot,” Mickey said. “Millions of people visit it, but they can’t stay in Bethlehem. They have to go to Israel for hotels.

“The film is very moving, and it is less anti-Israel than it is anti-wall.”

His own feelings are mixed, and have not gotten at all in the way of his love for Israel. “I am holding both sides again,” he said. “People are going through both stories, and my heart goes out to both of them.

“I understand why there has to be a wall, but I hope that it can come down some day.”

He stayed in Israel for two weeks, and he toured the country. He loved it. “I am very emotional,” he understated. “When I got to Haifa, I saw a 20-story building, beautiful, white, some stone like alabaster. And on the top of it there was a giant Israeli flag. It made me cry.”

Why? Because on some level, in some way, it showed him that “it’s okay for me to be Jewish.

Mickey went back to Israel in October.
Mickey went back to Israel in October.

“I’m not religious, but for two days I walked around with a yarmulke on,” he said. “It felt good.”

Israel evoked memories of other times and places for him. “As Brooklyn is to New York now, Jaffa is to Tel Aviv,” he said; artsy, liberal, a little quieter. He went to the Kotel and watched a bar mitzvah, and that made him cry; he went to Masada; he went to Yad Vashem; he rented a motorbike — not a motorcycle — and rode around Haifa, he went to the biblical zoo north of Tel Aviv. “Israel is such a real place,” he said. “This is real. You can’t push these people into the sea.

Mickey was so moved by a bar mitzvah at the Kotel that after he cried he photographed the boy and his mother in the plaza.
Mickey was so moved by a bar mitzvah at the Kotel that after he cried he photographed the boy and his mother in the plaza.

“And I kept crying, all over.”

Mickey learned a great deal from his travels, both in his early 20s and now at 70. “When you travel, you walk away with some powerful experiences,” he said. “The key is to hold onto them, and make them part of your life, so that it becomes part of you.

“It has empowered me. It has given me so much. My travels to Europe, to Israel, to India, this trip to Israel — it’s not like going to Atlantic City. Traveling has made me keep growing, and as an older person I know how important that is.”

read more: