Jan 152015

Something like the smell of perfume rose all around us – from the nearby copses of acacia, or “mimosa,” as others called them, growing on the slopes of the Hebrew moshav in the land of Judah. The aureate sheaf of the sun setting behind us gilded in the expanse of heaven before us a single band of quiet, forlorn clouds; quiet and forlorn as well were the rest of the clouds, those not gilded and enwrought with long, fine bands of pure gold. The edges of heaven glowed with a soft and modest radiance, the radiance of the silvery-black myrtle leaves. The colors changed from one sweeping glance to the next, combining, melding, fruitful and multiplying – and melting away.

Against the cedar, alone and erect, behind the little “acacias” and yellowish pads of the prickly pears, heavy and filled with needles and their regular ponderousness, we leaned back, my friend and I, a man of about thirty. Gifted with a strong upper back, sloping, by no means aristocratic, and a roughly-hewn face, thick, pockmarked with pale acne, his sickness had kept him from work that day, an Elul day with the full strength of Tammuz’s heat – we had turned from the regular path to walk along the ridges framing the glowing horizon; the ruined fortress, “historic,” to our right side, a dozen miles away, seemed close, so very close….

For a time we walked on level ground, keeping silent. The greying vista, above the mountain peaks and their sharp angles, already held traces of harvesttime, but the heat of the fields was still fierce and summery. My friend turned around and took in the whole of the plain below. The sun, in the fullness of its brilliance, crimson and undimmed, went on sinking down. The moshav’s trees grew distant from us, distant and dimming.

“Those trees….” My walking companion suddenly cut through his silence, but his low voice, serious and ironic at once, somewhat softened the abruptness.


“Those trees, I was saying…do you see the tops of them? If I was to write a travelogue from here, or at least one of those update letters like everyone else writes, I wouldn’t hesitate, no doubt in my mind, to open with: ‘Our settlements!…what a candid yet fleeting little smile trembles among their few trees….'”

“Trembles?” I repeated the word, a favorite of my friend every time he talked about his “philosophy of nature”: as always, he cloaked himself in a mocking tone, but this time his voice betrayed other shades of meaning.

“Yes indeed, the treetops” – he tripped headlong into the trap I’d laid – “I’m talking about the treetops. How long have they been here? Since half the jubilee, twenty-five years, more or less…the oldest trees surely remember…half the jubilee ago there was nothing here…just dunes…sand….”

“So why now all of a sudden are you bringing up treetops?” I asked, cutting to the point.

“How now? Treetops? Oh, right: the treetops can gaze far off into the distance; perhaps from here the treetops can see to the great cities – did you know, by the way, that your innkeeper has a son lucky enough to be traveling this week? – but yes, the great cities…across the sea and beyond….”

“So what?”

“So what! The great cities – tens of millions sunk all their strength into them…hundreds of years, hundreds…building, gathering, adding…and so? So firm is their foundation…people born there have standing…there’s a kind of grandiosity…do you remember the grand railway stations? The magnificent parks?”


“And here…an oppressive poverty of existence…a settlement of only twenty-five years…and for whom? Ha. Did you know that your innkeeper said today: ‘Should I let my son be a farmer? Should he suffer like me in the orchards? If so – better he were never created….'”

A single bird, whose Hebrew name neither of us knew, wheeled over us with many-colored wings, greening the blue of the sky, and vanished.

“But the thing that makes you sad in all this,” continued the speaker in his hushed voice, now almost free of any hint of irony, with a sort of strange gravity, as if astonished, “is what they see…no, rather, what they foresee… is what’s right around them, what’s fundamental…let’s suppose that our treetops, ha-ha, forget the great fortified cities…and maybe they don’t see them and don’t compare them to our pathetic Hebrew village…but the fundamental part of their surroundings, what’s nearby, it’s impossible for them not to see…my heart goes out to them. My heart goes out to anything whose trunks send forth branches without striking roots.”

“Words of prophecy?”

“Hardly even an editorial! And we – can we truly not see?”


“The villages! The old ones, not ours, the others, the ones that belong here, the ones for which the sun is their sun and the rains their rains, whose years are no meager twenty-five…and the people living in them too, no sons flung away from their fathers’ tables, the taste of Goshen’s abundance still in their mouths…but rather…perhaps they themselves are a foul people – almost certainly, foul indeed! But, at any rate, not the filth of the world…ah! Ah, those poor treetops, always to be lopped off! And always, always…’for small is Jacob, and poor’…such misery!”

From the moshav came the ringing of the evening bell.

“And you know what else I’ll tell you?” – my friend was in talkative spirits – “Here of all places…(maybe we’ll sit awhile on the tel there? On our way back?)…here of all places, in the place of our destruction, the ruin of our nation, so prominent in our minds…here of all places I’ve found a few moments of contentment…which seemed to me as if…as if my life was finally being filled with some direction, some purpose…it’s just a pity that back there, everywhere, they go on so much about “our beloved land”…maybe that’s why the sorrow is so poignant when newcomers arrive…awakening from a dream…up until today, a year and a half hence, no matter what I see, I can’t get it out of my head: so this is the Land of Israel!

…Nerves?” My conversational partner stirred after a few moments of silence. “Nerves, you say?” I hadn’t spoken a word. “Yes…perhaps.”

And after a short while, when the sun had finally gone down, and we, on our way back, sat to rest on the tel, covered with sparse grass and thick prickly pear pads, clumped together to form a kind of wall. Our conversation, whose subject flitted quickly from one topic to the next, turned once again to nerves and their effects, and my friend thrust out a leg, a boot flapping loosely over it, and then the second, wrapped in rags, and uncharacteristically began to spill his soul. And then for some reason he detailed to me the memories that came to the surface alongside, which seemed not at all relevant to his original topic. His speech began with fragmented and rambling sentences, more broken than coherent, but little by little beginning to come together well enough, or at least according to the speaker, who would encourage me between pauses:

“Sit still…sit…I’m speaking of what’s past…the rambling should pass too…everything passes.”

  2 Responses to “Yosef Hayim Brenner, “Nerves,” Chapter 1”

  1. An improvement over Halkin! The Hebrew is transparent in yours. I can’t believe Halkin translated ארץ-יהודה as “southern Palestine” or totally botched the פרו-ורבו allusion in the first paragraph. Thanks for taking on this project. I enjoy reading the story in translation much more this time around.

  2. I don’t claim to always understand Halkin, although I like his persona. But heeyyy, drop me a line, man, let me know how life is.

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