Jan 262015
 

It was when I came here from New York. (Ha, I say ‘it was,’ as if there was something to it at all…) But at any rate…at any rate: not ‘it was!’ If we have to say it that way, then not ‘it was’ — I should say, ‘they were.’ And I don’t deny it: such combinations of things, really, there were. And maybe that’s the whole point…how all sorts of things were connected this way…things that are easier to misunderstand than understand…the way it is when one considers journeys and their travelers…I mean to say, travelers on a journey…and so?

Right. When I came here. I came here. Why? Why did I come here? What did I hope such a journey would accomplish? But that almost doesn’t seem relevant, I mean, to the meat of the thing. But haven’t you heard me say all this already? Like everyone who’s ever thought about his life since time immemorial, I too came to the realization that this riddle, the riddle of this life, ‘shall never be solved,’ for whatever comes after my life I won’t see or understand until the end of time…or at all, really…as it’s said, ‘Nothing shall be’…and even worse, not just what comes after my life — what my life itself is I’ll never understand, and what I am in this world and what I was before I was myself, and what I’ll be after I’m gone…(look, the moon…trembling silvery gold…what day of the month is it today?)…yes. By whose hands was I hurled into the fullness of this world to breathe, to live, to take in the heavens and the earth, to be warmed by the rays of the sun and chilled by daggers of cold? (I mean, I’m not cold now, I’m speaking generally). Yes, to suffer in early springs and be weighed down with sorrow in gloomy falls, if one can use a poet’s tongue, and behold, such a wonder: through it all I always saw that final moment, after which nothing comes, the final moment, destined to come, forcing me to think about it at all times, after which everything changes, no dreaming, no waking, for the rest of eternity, that same moment that nullifies all…what are you laughing for? My turns of phrase or just that I dwell on all this so much? (Look, you’re sitting right next to the cactus, you’re going to get pricked…)

In short: that same moment, before which there is truly neither sacred nor profane, neither beauty nor ugliness, no beloved, no hated, no important, no unimportant, and even so, with all the travails of life and the impossibility of understanding it, we don’t want it to come, that is, lifelessness…

And so…when I came here…I knew already…I knew all about these shopworn opinions (almost shamefully shopworn and banal, yes indeed, shopworn, banal — and still true!)…and I knew as well (for has so much time really passed since then?) that despite these opinions of mine, and despite my feelings, here I was, like everyone who ever opined or felt anything throughout time, compelled, against my will, despite my best intentions…to heed my own will…yes, my own will…and like everyone around me, like you and like others as well, the thoughtful and the thoughtless, the heedful and the heedless…to fill that all-consuming empty space, which can’t be filled until one’s final moments, and perhaps not at all…who knows…

In New York — you’re not asleep? you’re listening? — in New York, where I was for eight years, ever since leaving Ukraine, the land of my birth, I spent every moment in a factory (a sweatshop, actually!) where I would cast into the yawning abyss button after button — the same I would sew onto tens of thousands of pants every single month (in a vile “workshop,” utterly and disgustingly vile, I have to tell you!)…and truly I knew, I felt, that the mouth of this gaping abyss was nothing more than diverted, pushed aside, by whatever I threw at it (of filling it there was no hope whatsoever!), yet on the other hand, it was no secret to me that the buttons weren’t entirely at fault, and that this abyss of terrors, to frame it in the proper words, couldn’t be bridged by oranges either, the kind I would pick and carry by the crate in the orchards of the Promised Land, when I arrived there (when there was work to be had, when I wasn’t overcome with malaria)…and still, off I ran! Because I was, so to speak, full of life — feh, what am I saying? — I meant to say, full of life’s clever notions — you understand? That is, full of the hidden, unconscious power of life, the kind that rules over our instincts and sometimes, sometimes manages by itself to make our search for meaning almost pleasant…yet I couldn’t, I wasn’t willing, to free myself from this irrational aspiration, so to speak, towards something else, some other notion, some other place — that’s the inherent attraction of it, really…so my understanding, the same understanding come to by Qohelet the son of David, king in Jerusalem, was one thing, but the direction of my actual life, oh, that was another thing entirely…something devoted, when I could direct it without falling victim to the influence of the understanding part of me, to…my necessities! Sewing, salary, The Free Worker’s Voice, a pair of shoes, the torments of sex — just the concerns of the hour alone!

And don’t I know it? Perhaps in the depths of my soul something trembled and pricked me on to travel, if one can speak in a literary fashion, and also to heed the stirrings of longing for a new, more beautiful horizon (after all, I never sat on a tel like this after work in New York!), and perhaps even for some kind of homeland, which, as a Jew, I’d never known since I first breathed the air of this world, all my life, all…even if I include the early days of my childhood under the sweetly beloved skies of Ukraine with its lovely shiksas, who would toss your clothes into the water every time you bathed in the sweetly beloved river — hah! I don’t know — what do you think of it all? — I don’t know, perhaps deep inside me fluttered some little shred of hope, to…to find a foothold, any foothold at all, to absorb something there, in that promised land, on the fringes of Asia, where the tents of the Bedouin, maybe the sons of the sons of Abraham the Hebrew, are pitched to this day; where there are camels to lead to water, just like Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, did in his time; and where (and this is the heart of it!) the third- and fourth-generation descendants of tax collectors for the Polish nobility try to walk in the plow’s furrows…there…I mean to say, here…ahh, ‘let me go over and see that good land, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon…’”

Nu, and in the end? Did you find a foothold? Are you ‘absorbing?’”

Yet immediately I felt that there had been no good reason to interrupt him. My voice seemed off to me, crudely dissonant.

He absentmindedly plucked a blade of grass and crushed it between his fingers.

Jan 172015
 

I said to Tehilla, “If Shraga’s dead how can you want to send him a letter?”

“You must be thinking that after so many years the old woman’s gone crazy, trusting the post office to send a letter to the dead,” Tehilla said.

“If that’s not the case, then what are you going to do?” I asked. She stood and took the pitcher on the table and raised it up and spoke in a kind of song.

“I’ll take the letter, put it in the pitcher, take sealing wax, seal the pitcher, and take the pitcher with the letter with me.”

I thought in my heart, “And if she takes the pitcher with the letter I still don’t see how the letter will get to Shraga.” I looked at her and asked, “Where will you take the pitcher with the letter?”

Tehilla laughed sweetly and said mildly, “Where will I take the pitcher? I’ll take it to my grave, to my grave I’ll take the pitcher with the letter. And there in the higher world they’ll know Shraga and know where he is. And faithful are the emissaries of the Holy One Blessed Be He who shall deliver the letter to his hand.” She laughed sweetly again, the victorious laugh of a little girl who had outwitted her elders. Then she lay her head on her cane and it seemed as if she were napping. But presently she raised her head and peered at me with a piercing gaze and said, “Now that the whole matter has become clear to you, you can write the letter yourself.” While she was speaking she again rested her head on her cane.

I took up the quill and wrote. When I had finished, Tehilla raised her head and said, “Have you finished?”

I stood before her and read, her eyes tightly closed, as if she had put the whole affair from her mind and had no desire to hear.

When I had finished reading, she opened her eyes and said, “Good, my son, good, exactly as I wanted. The words could have been written in another way, but nevertheless, the way you’ve written it, the words are as clear as they need to be. Now, my son, give me the quill and I’ll sign my name on the letter and put it in the pitcher, and then I’ll go validate the contract.”

I dipped the quill in the ink and held it out to her. She took it and signed her name. Then she passed the quill over a few letters in need of minor correction. Then she folded the letter, placed it in the pitcher and stuck a piece of parchment over the lid. She lit a candle and took sealing wax and held it before the candle until it softened, and then sealed the pitcher.

She rose from her seat and walked towards the bed. When she arrived she lifted up the blanket and laid the pitcher underneath the pillow.

She looked upon it with contented eyes and said softly, “I’ll hurry to go to validate the contract. Blessed may you be, my son, for you have not withheld any of your efforts from me. From here on I won’t bother you.”

While she was speaking she smoothed the blanket, took up her cane, walked towards the door, and stretched herself out in order to kiss the mezuzah, then waited until I stepped out. She exited, locked the door and walked off hurriedly. I followed in her footsteps.

While walking she gazed with contented eyes at every place she passed and every person who crossed our path. She paused suddenly and said, “Tell me, my son, how does one lay aside holy places and faithful Jews like these?”

I was unsure of her words’ direction. When we arrived at a fork in the road, she paused and bade me farewell.

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

We walked a few steps before she paused again and said, “I’ve already come to where I was going. Farewell.” She saw I was determined to go with her and spoke no further. She ascended the broad steps that led the courtyard of the burial society. She went inside and I went after her.

We entered the burial society building, the building the oversaw the living and the dead. Three of the society scribes were seated there, their registry books before them and their pens in their hands, writing as they blew on glasses of black coffee. When they saw Tehilla they laid down their pens and stood in deference to her and said welcome and hurried to find her a chair.

The eldest among them said to her, “What is it that’s brought you here?”

“I came to renew the contract,” she said.

“You came to renew the contract,” he said, “but we were sure it was time to void it already.”

Tehilla looked astonished. “What are you saying?”

“Haven’t you already removed yourself from the ranks of the shtarbers?1

The smile still on his face, he turned to me and said, “Tehilla, may she live and her days and years be lengthened, makes it a custom to come here every year to renew the bill of sale for her plot on the Mount of Olives. It was the same last year and the year before, three years ago, ten years, twenty, thirty, and it seems she’s destined to do the same until the coming of the Redeemer.”

“May he come, may he come,” Tehilla said. “I wish he’d hurry up already. But I won’t bother you anymore.”

“Are you going off to a commune, like those young people who call themselves pioneers?” the scribe asked in wonderment.

“I’m not going to a commune, I’m going to my place.”

“You’re going back Outside the Land?”

“I’m not going Outside the Land, I’m returning to the place I came from, as it’s written, and to the dust you shall return.

The scribe whistled and said, “Please, please, please. You must think the burial society has nothing to do. Believe me, wait another twenty or thirty years. Why all the hurry?”

She whispered, “I’ve already summoned the purifiers and the bathers and it’s just not polite to fool such fine women.”

The scribe’s face fell and it was clear how sorry he was. “How fine it is that we can see you here with us, for every time we see you we see a picture of a lengthy life, and that you want to leave us G-d forbid it’s like you’re taking it away.”

“If I still have years to live,” Tehilla said, “behold, I grant them to you and anyone else who desires life. Here’s the contract — sign it.”

After the scribe had signed the bill of sale, Tehilla took it and placed it within her clothes. “From here on I won’t bother you. May G-d be with you, my dear Jews, and now I shall go to my place.” She rose and walked towards the door and paused to raise her lips to the mezuzah, kissed it and went out.

She saw I was walking with her and paused. “Return to your affairs, my son.”

“When you told me you were going to validate the contract, I was sure you were talking about your house, and in the end…”

She followed the drift of my words and said, “And in the end it was the contract for my grave. Hopefully I won’t need to stay there long and I’ll rise again with all the dead of Israel. Farewell to you, my son. I must hurry home, I’m sure the purifiers and the bathers are already waiting for me.” I stood silent and mute and she disappeared between the buildings and alleys.

In the morning I went into the city to check on Tehilla. I came across that same scholar whose house Tehilla had shown me. He stopped and drew me into his conversation. When I finally pulled away he asked to accompany me.

“I’m not going home,” I said, “I’m going to Tehilla’s.”

“You’ll have to go a hundred twenty years.” He saw that I was confused, and added, “May you live. That same righteous woman has left us.”

I took my leave and went off alone, walking and musing. Tehilla had gone and passed away. Gone and passed away. Sure enough, I found myself at her house. I opened the door of her room and stepped in.

A silent calm filled the room, as in a prayer room after prayer. And on the floor flowed what was left of the water with which they’d washed Tehilla.

  1. Yiddish, “those who die.”
Jan 162015
 

“Meanwhile the necessities of the wedding were being seen to. Shraga’s father wrote the scrolls for his tefillin and my father bought him a talles and I sewed him a satchel for his tefillin and one for his Shabbos talles. Who made the tefillin and talles bags I don’t remember.

“One Shabbos about four weeks before the day that had been dedicated to our wedding, Shraga didn’t come to my father’s house. At minchah my father asked after him at the house of study and heard that he’d left. And where had he gone? He’d gone to a Chasidic rabbi, taken by his father to receive a blessing for the first time he donned his talles and tefillin. Upon hearing the rumor, my father’s soul nearly took flight from his body, for he hadn’t known that Shraga’s father was among the members of that sect, that he’d been hiding his Chasidus, for Chasidim were still scorned and pursued, and my father was chief among the pursuers, for in his eyes it was as if the Chasidim had entirely left, G-d forbid, the community of Israel. After havdoloh my father tore apart the wedding contract and sent the pieces to the father of the groom’s house. Two days later Shraga’s father returned with his son from their trip and came to my father’s house. With harsh words, father threw them out. Shraga jumped up and swore he would never forgive us for the offense. And father was in no hurry to beg Shraga’s forgiveness, even though father knew that after voiding a wedding contract it was necessary to beg forgiveness from the injured party. And when mother begged father to placate Shraga, father mocked her and said, ‘Don’t worry, he’s from the sect.’ So scorned were in the Chasidim in father’s eyes that he didn’t notice everyone worried for him.

“All the wedding preparations had been made. Sacks of flour and crocks of honey filled the house, and the kneaders and bakers had already been summoned to make challah and cakes. In short, everything was ready for the chuppah. Nothing was missing except the groom. Father called on the matchmaker and found me another groom with whom I went beneath the chuppah.

“What happened to Shraga I don’t know, since father had decreed that no one in the house was to ever mention his name again. Days later I heard that that he and all his father’s house had uprooted themselves and moved to a different town, as they feared for their lives, for ever since father had canceled the contract none of the men had been called up to the Torah, not even on Simchas Torah, and they couldn’t make a minyan by themselves, for father was the head of the community and wouldn’t allow anyone to gather a minyan outside the regular places of prayer — and had they not moved to a new town where they called them up to the Torah, they wouldn’t have lived out another year.

“Three years into my marriage I was granted a son. And two years later, another. Two years after that, I was granted a daughter.

“The years passed as they do, and we did not lack for wealth. The children grew and flourished and my husband, peace be upon him, and I saw and were contented. I forgot about Shraga and forgot that I had never received from him a statement of absolution.

“Mother and father passed on to the life in the World to Come. Before his passing, father, may his memory be for a blessing, charged his sons and sons-in-law to see to all his work and commanded them to always act as one. The work was profitable, and we honorably conducted our house and affairs. We employed the best teachers for our sons and a gentile tutor for our daughter, for in those days those who feared heaven kept Jewish tutors at arm’s length, for so many were bound firmly to heresy.

“My sons’ teachers my husband brought in from other places, since the teachers in our town were required to accept all students, even those not fit to learn, but a teacher one brought in from another city was obligated to nothing save the will of his employers, and was free not to accept additional students. After they came they would dine at our table on Shabbos. My husband, who with all his many obligations could never manage to devote a few moments to study, was delighted to have such guests from whom he might hear words of Torah. And the children and I were pleased too because of the lovely songs one would sing around the table. And we had no idea our guest was Chasidic and his Torah was Chasidic and his songs were Chasidic songs, for in all other things he behaved like all the faithful of Israel. One Shabbos evening the teacher spoke a Torah sermon, and afterwards shut his eyes and began to sing a lovely, delicate song, until our souls nearly took flight from the sweetness of it. My husband asked the teacher, ‘Where does one come by such abundant fear of Heaven?’ He whispered, “One should travel to our rabbi’s side, and he’ll receive so much more than that.’ A few days later my husband found himself in the city of the teacher’s rabbi, and returned with new customs whose like I had not seen from my father, and I knew they were Chasidic customs. I mused within, ‘Who shall sweep the dust from your eyes,1 father, for you pushed away Shraga for his Chasidus — and see how the husband you found for me in Shraga’s place now does Shraga’s deeds! If this isn’t atonement for sin, I don’t know what it is.’

“My brothers and in-laws took note but said nothing, for times had changed with our generation and no one felt ashamed of his Chasidic relations, for in the intervening years wealthy Chasidim had come from other cities for the sake of marriage, and even built for themselves their own synagogue, and would openly go to see their rabbis. My husband did not move over to the Chasidic synagogue, but he adopted Chasidic customs and educated the boys in the Chasidic fashion and would travel from time to time to visit with his rabbi.

“A year before our eldest son became bar mitzvah, a plague swept the world and many took ill, G-d forbid. There was no house without at least one sick person within. The plague struck us as well and my eldest took ill. In the end, Hashem may-he-be-blessed took pity on us, but not for long. After recovering, my son began to learn the laws of tefillin from the Shulkhan Arukh. And I looked on and was pleased that his Chasidus had not left his Torah wanting.

“One morning our son arose early and left for the house of study. He found there a man wrapped in a shroud like the dead. This dead man was not truly dead, but mad, G-d forbid, and given to do many strange deeds. The poor child was terrified and his spirit fled his body right then and there. We barely brought him back to life. To life, but not to a long one. From then on he slowly ebbed away like a candle in the closing moments of Yom Kippur. He hadn’t even put on tefillin for the first time when his spirit once again fled and he died.

“During the seven days of mourning I sat and thought, ‘My son died at night after the end of Shabbos, thirty days before he was to lay tefillin, and it was on a night after the end of Shabbos, thirty days before I was to go beneath the chuppah with Shraga, that father tore up the contract. I counted the days, and to my shock and agitation, these two terrible things had happened on the same, at the same hour. And even if it was nothing more than coincidence, it still bore thought.

“Two years later our second son came to bar mitzvah age. He came, and yet didn’t. As it happened, he had gone with his friends to the forest near our town to gather branches for Shavuot. While they were still in the woods, he left them and went to the town scribe to see his tefillin being made — and never returned. We were sure that gypsies had kidnapped him, for a band of them had been seen passing the town. Days later we found his body, cast into the great swamp outside the town, and we realized that the child had stumbled on the path and fell into the swamp. When we had finished mourning I said to my husband, ‘What’s left for us? We have nothing left except a little girl. If we don’t seek forgiveness from Shraga, her end will be like that of her brothers.’

“Throughout all those years we hadn’t heard a word about Shraga, since after he and all his father’s house had left our town he had been forgotten, and no one knew where he was. My husband said, ‘Shraga is a disciple of so-and-so rabbi, I’ll go to him and found out where Shraga is.’ My husband was not among the disciples of that rabbi — on the contrary, he despised him — because of the theological dispute between the rabbis, over a slaughterer whom one rabbi had appointed and the other had relieved of his duties. And this same dispute had caused the death of one man of Israel, put to flight several families, and deprived a number of heads of the household of all their worldly possessions, forcing a few to live out their days in prison.

“My husband traveled to meet the rabbi. He hadn’t yet arrived when the rabbi died, having divided his spiritual domain among his sons, all of whom had gone on to a different city. My husband went from son to son asking after Shraga, and none knew a thing. Finally they told him, ‘If it’s Shraga you’re asking for, he grew bitter and became a misnaged.2’ But where he was, they didn’t know.

“When a man is a Chasid, you can find him. If he’s not a Chasid of one rabbi, he’s a Chasid of another. But your everyday Jew, if you don’t know where he is, how can you find him? My husband, peace be upon him, was accustomed to travel, and his affairs brought him to many places. Whenever he would travel, he would ask after Shraga. And because of all those trips, his vitality dimmed and his blood ran thin. And one day on his travels he took sick and died.

“After I had put a headstone on his grave, I returned to my town and went into the family business. My whole life I had been helping my husband with his affairs, but since he had died, I threw myself into them with all my strength. And Hashem may-he-be-blessed doubled my strength until everyone began to say that I was strong as a man. It would have been better had I been granted wisdom instead of strength, but Hashem is a thoughtful god, and one not beholden to the thoughts of man concerning what’s good and what isn’t. I thought in my heart, ‘All my labors, I labor for my daughter — I will increase our wealth and so increase her fortune.’ And with all the demands of business constantly multiplying, I was not available to my daughter, except for Shabbos and holidays, and even then, half the day was spent at the synagogue and the other half entertaining guests. Supposedly my daughter shouldn’t have needed me, since I had hired her tutors and invested much in her studies, and I heard a great deal of praise for her. And even the gentiles, who mocked us and said that we spoke a gutter tongue, would heap praise upon my daughter and claim she spoke their languages like the very best among them. She particularly endeared herself herself to her Christian tutors, who would invite her to their homes. I summoned the matchmakers and they found her a magnificent groom, great in Torah and destined for the rabbinate. But I was not lucky enough to send them beneath the chuppah, for an evil spirit had taken hold of my daughter and stolen her wits. And now, my son, I ask of you: write to Shraga that I’ve forgiven him for all the sorrows that befell me by his hand, and write that he too needs to forgive me, for I have had my fill of scourging.”

I sat silent and dumb and said not a word. Then I brought a finger to my eyes and wiped away my tears. And then I said to Tehilla, “Please, tell me: since the day your father tore up the contract more than ninety years have passed. Do you truly think Shraga yet lives? And if he does, have you discovered where he is?” Tehilla said, “Shraga is no longer alive, Shraga is dead. He passed away thirty years ago. How do I know the year of his death? That same year, on the seventh of Adar, I went to pray minchah. After the reading of the haftarah, when the names of the departed are called out, I heard Shraga mentioned. After the service I asked the sexton, ‘Who asked for Shraga’s name to be called?’ He said, ‘So-and-so son of so-and-so, his relative, asked me.’ I went to so-and-so’s house and heard what there was to hear.

  1. A rhetorical question asked of the dead, akin to “If so-and-so were only alive to see this…”
  2. An opponent of Chasidism.
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.

“Huh?”

“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?”

Nu?”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

Jun 172014
 

Sure, it’s been a month since my last installment, but in the interim, I’ve noticed a lot of new and random search hits from people searching for English translations of “Tehilla,” which I assume means it was assigned somewhere, and there are a lot of people looking to escape the trouble of actually, y’know, reading a Hebrew text for their Hebrew class. And fuck that, I say. Do your homework. Learn some words. I recommend the dictionary. I’d hardly even call it one of Agnon’s harder texts. Anyway, I feel an appropriate amount of time has passed, so here’s some more as we approach the denouement:

***

I dipped the quill into the ink and readied the paper and waited for Tehilla to tell me what to write. She was wrapped in her thoughts and paid me no mind. I sat and peered at her and took in my with eyes every wrinkle and crevice in her face. How many adventures she’d had. She often said she’d seen good things and things even better. As I heard it, the things weren’t so good. As the scholar had said about her, the righteous bear their their sorrow in their hearts and their joy on their faces. She took notice of me and turned her head towards me and said, have you begun? I said, you still haven’t told me what I should write. She said, the way things should start you already know, you start with the praises of the Omnipresent and you write “be-ezras Hashem yisbareikh.” I smoothed the paper and raised the quill and wrote “be-ezras Hashem yisbareikh.” She straightened herself and looked at the text and said, lovely, lovely. And now what should you write? Write here the Holy City Jersalem may it be rebuilt and restored speedily and in our days, amen. When I’m speaking, I say Jerusalem without any kind of embellishment. In a letter, though, you need to mention the holiness of Jerusalem and add a request that she be rebuilt, so the reader might take Jerusalem to heart and know how much she’s in need of mercy and pray for her. Now, my son, write the date and the weekly parshah and the year. Continue reading »

May 182014
 

The magic of fountain pens.

***

A short while later I found myself in Tehilla’s house and found her sitting at the table as if awaiting me with all her strength. The room was small and the walls pressed in closely and the ceiling was domed, as rooms had been in Jerusalem in past generations. Had it not been for a small bed in the corner and a clay pitcher standing on the table I would have likened her room to a prayer room. Even its few furnishings — a polished copper lamp, a copper washing cup, a copper candelabra with a few arms hanging from the ceiling, and indeed the table upon which lay a prayer book and a chumash1 and another book — gave the room something of the graceful atmosphere of a prayer room. Continue reading »

  1. The Five Books of Moses in book form.
May 082014
 

And here we go with more tantalizing glimpses of backstory.

***

Tilly entered, carrying a pot of soup. She saw me and said, you’re here. Sit down, dear, sit down. Bikkur khoylim is a great mitzvah. Your face looks better and better, rebbetzin. Hashem’s salvation is quick as the blink of an eye. Hashem, may he be blessed, sends his healing more and more with every passing hour. I’ve brought you a bowl of soup you can get down. Lift up your head, my dear, and I’ll hold up the pillow. Just like that, my dear. It’s a pity, my son, that you don’t live in the city and you can’t see how much the rebbetzin, may she live, is getting better every day. Continue reading »

May 022014
 

Well, in my last installment, I cut off the title character mid-monologue, which is probably bad form in serialization, but hey, you want good form, in the immortal words of that incomparable British rock ‘n’ roll foursome, “gimme some money.” So here we go with the rest of that aborted monologue, plus some cornstarch-gluey plot-thickening.

***

The manner of most men when they mention Jerusalem is to add Ir ha-Koydesh,1 but me, when I mention Jerusalem I don’t add a single word, because her holiness is in her name, in the name itself. Go on up, my son, go on up, and don’t trip on the steps. So many times I told the gabbai2 of the kollel3 that the stairs needed fixing, and what answer did he answer me with, the gabbai? The courtyard is old and about to fall into ruin and it’s not worth wasting a penny on. So come to ruin the houses of Israel until they’re abandoned and the Ishmaelites come and take them. Houses built with the tears of their fathers, the sons abandon. Again I’m babbling and bringing about my end. Continue reading »

  1. “The Holy City.”
  2. Sexton, synagogue caretaker.
  3. An institution in which adult Jewish men study Jewish texts as a career, supported by charity.
May 022014
 

Since my randomly undertaken translation of the rare original edition of S.Y. Agnon’s “Agunot” has proven strangely popular, judging by my metrics, I’ve decided now that the serialization is done, it’s time to put out the “trade paperback,” as it were. So here, available for download at your convenience, is the entire story in one handy PDF. Ain’t I a swell fella.

Download “Agunot” here (PDF).

Apr 292014
 

And so it goes.

***

Beside me as I stood in my place pressed against the Wall was a Mandatory policeman prodding and spurring with the crop in his hand. What enflamed this man’s heart so to make him so furious? A sickly old woman had brought with a stool to sit upon. The policeman leapt up and kicked away the stool, knocking the old woman to the ground, and seized the stool, as she had broken the law, enshrined by the lawmakers of the Mandate, that it was expressly forbidden for any worshiper at the Wall to bring something to sit on. The worshipers saw and kept silent, for who could talk reason with one whose mind was mind up? And then came that same old woman I knew and stared at him. The policeman cast his eyes downward and returned the stool. Continue reading »