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 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.”