Lessons I Have Learnt From a Quiet Mossad Man

One of the wonderful things my parents did for our family during my childhood was the annual summer holiday. Nobody dreamt then of trips abroad and even hotels and guest houses were well beyond their reach. But once a year, in the middle of the summer, my parents would pack a few clothes bags and baskets full of utensils and food products and the family would head off, on busses and then on a long hike through sand dunes, to a small village by the sea where they would rent for two weeks with money they saved penny to penny during the year a small room with four beds and a shared kitchenette. This we did year after year since I was 12 years old and there is no room here to describe all the wonderful memories I carry with me from that magical place. When the kids grew up and went on their ways my parents continued to head off to the same yard year after year. The place also became my second home outside the summer months – I would arrive there as a teenager to pour my heart out when I though nobody understood me, there I smoked my teenage cigarettes and there I also learnt to appreciate the charms of smiling, suntanned Israeli girls.

Years later, as an army officer under contract, I would arrive from time to time at the same yard for a short weekend with my new wife and during one of these stays I met an extraordinary man I will call Portugali. A quiet, solid man with dark skin and black hair who never talked about himself and who was, as I found out, a Mossad agent for many years who had recently taken retirement. He and his wife also spent their summer holidays in one of the modest rooms. Out of the common kitchenette wafted the smells of Mrs Portugali’s wonderful cooking and I sat opposite him at the small table on the veranda to play Backgammon. I always thought that the game of Backgammon represented real life better than, say, the game of Chess. In real life, so I thought, there was an element of luck and there was an element of wisdom and the final result depended on both. In light of my long experience playing the game with my army friends I also believed I was quite a good Backgammon player. Oh, the disgrace.

Portugali played Backgammon in complete silence and with full concentration, hardly blinking. After he won the first three games I began to feel a light pressure. After his tenth win, with our two wives looking from a distance from time to time with a little smile, I felt the sweat accumulating on my forehead. After forty consecutive wins of his I understood that despite the fact that throwing the dice had an element of luck, in the end it is we who make our luck, and that there are those who can do this much better than others who face them.

Early next morning, Portugali, myself and the landlord went out rod fishing for Grey Mullet from the rocks on the beach. We travelled in my car and when we got to the small car park near the beach I parked the vehicle facing the sea. Portugali who seemed a bit uncomfortable hesitated for a moment and then said to me: “Turn the car around and park it facing out. It got me out of trouble more than once.” This advice of his accompanies me to this day, not only when I park my car, but in any risk assessment I carry out, even on software development projects.

We stood on the rocks surrounded by the stormy sea pulling one Mullet after another out of the water. We kept the fish we caught in a blue plastic basket resting on the rock to our feet. Suddenly and without any warning, a particularly large wave emerged which washed the rock on which we stood and took the fish basket with it. With stupidity that to this day sends shivers down my spine, and without giving it a second thought, I jumped into the boiling water surrounded by the rocks, grabbed the handle of the fish basket before it disappeared forever and climbed back onto the rock with my arms and legs cut and bruised. I expected words of praise from the two other men but Portugali just stared at me with his dark penetrating eyes in which I saw for the first time supressed anger, and said quietly: “This was a very ill considered action.” How right you were, dear man, and how much time and life experience it took to develop discretion.

And these days, some 35 years later, when I listen to the compulsive chatter of some retired Mossad employees, I do miss Portigali, the quiet Mossad man.

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