Barak and Bona Washingtonia are one of those couples who have grown apart over the years. Barak’s an army buddy of mine, a regular guy, and at least from my point of view he’s as great as he always was. Bona, who’s an old friend of Ilana’s used to be a lot of fun, too, but in recent years she’s drifted into this weird hypernationalist New-Agey Breslov stuff and it’s been a strain for Barak. More than a strain. The poor guy is having a real tough time, especially now that the kids are all out of the house.
So when he invited me and Ilana over for Friday night dinner, we felt a special duty to go, even though it was freezing outside and we really felt like staying in. It’s a mitzvah to make peace in the home, between husband and wife, and all the more so on Shabbat.
Unfortunately, when Barak opened the door in answer to our knock, we could see immediately that things were not good. So much blood was rushing to his head that his normally olive complexion had gone dull and gray. He looked like he was about to punch a hole in the wall (something he was very good at back when we were in Nachal) and using every gram of will-power to keep himself from doing it. Ilana took one look and headed straight into the kitchen to help Bona.
“Hey, what’s eating you, ahi?” I said. “Here, let’s sit down. Don’t keep it in. Let it out. Lay it on me.”
He clenched his fists and hissed and covered his face with his hands and leaned back and looked at the ceiling and finally said, “I can’t believe she invited him!”
“What do you mean? Who?” I asked. “Hey, should I get you a drink of water? A beer?”
I could hear animated conversation in the kitchen. It didn’t sound like Bona was upset. In fact, she called out in her singsong voice: “We’ll just be a few minutes. We’re waiting for a very special guest!”
The man who grunted into a chair at the table next to me at Aroma Sokolov had fleshy overworked fingers with hair thicker than he had on his head. A tan sweater, a size too tight for him, outlined the bulge of his belly, and his eyes and nose were watery from the droplets of exhaust that shiver in the air on a Holon winter morning. He unfolded his free copy of Yisra’el Hayom and, in response to a query from a young man at the counter, held up two of those fingers. He flipped the paper to look at the forecast, shook his head, settled back in his chair, and addressed me.
“Dry January, right? But then each year is drier than the last.”
I nodded and gave him a smile with which I tried to say “You know it!” And also “I’m kind of busy so leave me alone.”
“But that cloudburst last night? Did you catch it? At two in the morning?”
When I didn’t respond, he nodded in the direction of the counter. “That’s my son, Niv. He’s getting married next week.”
“Mazal tov,” I said, without an exclamation point.
“He’s a good kid. Great girl, too.” Niv, drumming a riff on the counter while he waited, had a runner’s build and a frazzle of rusty hair.
“Looks it,” I said, keeping my eyes on my laptop screen.
He gave up and returned to the newspaper. “Niv!” said a loudspeaker voice and a minute later the son placed a tray on the table and sat down. He carefully, respectfully lifted a glass mug of kafe hafukh from the bright orange tray and put it in front of his father, followed by a small plate bearing a jelly donut and two tiny metal jugs of hot milk. Tearing a packet of sugar with his teeth, he sweetened his own hafukh, which remained on the tray. From a pants pocket he drew an iPhone and positioned it next to the coffee. The two of them sipped silently, long enough for me to get focused and forget they were there.
Abba was fanning himself with the folded front section of Ma’ariv when the bell buzzed. Ema was making her way through the kitchen door with a transparent tumbler of tea and nana, held on a waxy serviette, stirring up settled sugar. Abba looked up at her. Ema reached the couch, placed the serviette on the glass top of the coffee table, gently settled her tumbler on the serviette, and seated herself, with dignity, on the settee. She picked up the weekend supplement and considered the table of contents. The doorbell, whose chime had long since deteriorated into a scratchy drone, sounded again, much longer.
Abba, whose gazed had tracked his wife along her journey from kitchen to sofa, stared at the straight-backed figure in the white satin housecoat he had bought her on their trip two years ago to Bonn. Ema turned a page. A drop of sweat crawled from the corner of his right eye to his cheek.
He turned his gaze to me, sitting on the cool patterned tiles with my Ditza.
“Is someone going to get the door?” he asked, directing his words into the high-ceilinged vacuum, the drop of sweat falling from his cheek and just missing the strap of his white singlet to hit a tuft of hairs on his bony shoulder.
Ema finished reading a sentence, smiled, and slowly, with poise, directed her eyes at her husband.
Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike had mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.
Wickedly scheming, he would limp and cackle through the cold corridors of the castle, planning new impossible feats for the suitors of Saralinda to perform. He did not wish to give her hand in marriage, since her hand was the only warm hand in the castle. Even the hands of his watch and the hands of all the thirteen clocks were frozen. They had all frozen at the same time, on a snowy night, seven years before, and after that it was always ten minutes to five in the castle. Travelers and mariners would look up at the gloomy castle on the lonely hill and say, “Time lies frozen there. It’s always Then. It’s never Now.”
The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried. Now might bring a certain knight of gay and shining courage – “But, no!” the cold Duke muttered. “The Prince will break himself against a new and awful labor: a place too high to reach, a thing to far to find, a burden too heavy to lift.” The Duke was afraid of Now, but he tampered with the clocks to see if they would go, out of a strange perversity, praying that they wouldn’t.
Tinkers and tinkerers and a few wizards who happened by tried to start the clocks with tools or magic words, or by shaking them and cursing, but nothing whirred or ticked. The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.
In Tinkers, Paul Harding offers us the oldest kind of story known to humankind, a myth, or fairy tale, constructed out of many of the same elements as James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks. It’s the oldest kind of story because it is the kind of story we most need. It plumbs depths that naturalistic fiction never reaches; it challenges our feeble attempts to explain and understand the world in which we live and the people we love. Continue reading The Gollux and the Clockmaker: An Appreciation of Paul Harding’s Tinkers→
I went down yesterday to the Piraeus, in mind to attend the new drama by Adamschylus at the Zeatropolitan, of which everyone in the Agora is speaking. In truth, at our age, the wife and I seldom attend performances at the Zeatropolitan, preferring rather to watch the simulcast at the Stoa of Attalos, but Abefoxmachus, president of the tribe of Semitikropis, had objected and, holding his breath until his face turned blue, had persuaded Gelbus, director of the Zeatropolitan, to replace the broadcast of the new production with a screening of Exodus, which I have seen all too many times.
I had just reached the half-price ticket booth by the customs house when Taruskinus chanced to catch sight of me from a distance, and told his servant to run and bid me wait for him. The boy ran up to me and grabbed my cloak from behind, and said: Socrates, Taruskinus is approaching and desires you to wait.
“I certainly will,” I said.
“I perceive,” Taruskinus said to me when he arrived, “that the wisest man in Athens intends to attend the theater this evening.”
“I know not what the wisest man in Athens may be doing,” I said, “but as for me, yes, I have in mind to attend a performance of Adamshylus’s new drama.”
My brother Levi says that if I weren’t a woman he’d kill me. Just like the Arabs.
The reason he kills Arabs is that they are evil and kill us. He doesn’t kill his sister because because, he says, women think with their hearts and not their minds. Because they see only the here and now and not history. Because they trust too much.
So, he said, I will spare you and let the Holy One, Blessed Be He punish you. That Arab could have killed you. Or worse. With you alone in the house. But now everyone in Meah She’arim knows. Soon you’ll be called to testify in their courts and the whole Yishuv will learn of your shame. Perhaps that is the punishment that your life has been spared to receive.
On a midsummer afternoon, at the King George Street station in the center of downtown Jewish Jerusalem, I boarded one of the silver four-car trams of Jerusalem’s only light-rail line. The electric train swooshed east along Jaffa Road to the City Hall stop, just before the narrow, now-unmarked no-man’s-land that divided the city before 1967. The next stop was the Damascus Gate station, serving downtown Arab Jerusalem. From there the train headed north toward outlying Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods.
It was a normal rush-hour trip—except that there were no Palestinians on the train. No father spoke Arabic to the son sitting next to him; no teenage girls chattered in Arabic about their purchases on Jaffa Road. The women who wore head scarves had them tied behind their necks, Orthodox Jewish style, not wrapped under their chins, Muslim style. No one got on or off at Damascus Gate. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat, a mourning banner with a huge picture of murdered Arab teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir hung from an apartment building facing the tracks. A sign on the ticket machine on the platform said it was out of order—as it has been since angry young residents smashed it during the violent protests that followed the murder of Abu Khdeir at the beginning of July. No one got off there or at Beit Hanina, the northernmost Palestinian neighborhood on the line.
I did not want to be on the plane I boarded in mid-July. I’ve been through a lot of wars, but this is the first one I was leaving the country for. How could I? I had two children in active service—a son who’s a special forces officer and a daughter in a combat infantry unit. The wonderful woman that my son was scheduled to marry in just weeks, herself an intelligence officer, had been called up as a reservist. Twice in the previous week sirens had gone off in Jerusalem as Hamas launched long-rage rockets in our direction.
But tickets for the trip, for a visit to Dad and Mom in Denver and a literary conference in New York, had long since been purchased, and Ilana insisted that I not change my plans. “It’s not as if by being here you could change anything,” she pointed out.
Ilana’s admonishment was more pregnant than she realized. For Israelis like me, loyal Zionists who have for decades spoken out for Israeli democracy, tolerance, and accommodation with the Palestinians, the Gaza War was triply depressing. We, our family, our friends, and our country are under attack and our soldiers and civilians are being killed. Israeli bombs have killed hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip, embittering a Palestinian population with whom we must find a way to live. But, no less worse, death and destruction are turning the people on both sides ever farther away from accommodation and mutual understanding. Should we give up? Are we really impotent when it comes to peace?
The power to change, the refusal to accept the world as it is and the impulse to make it better, is fundamental to Judaism. The concept of free will is built into the Jewish Bible and into the wisdom of rabbinic literature, the building block of the ethical systems of nearly all Jewish theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. Not only can we change ourselves and determine our own actions, we believe, but we can also, through our actions and words, cause other people to change the way they act and think.
Elaine had taken the grandkids camping in the cemetery, so Roger was alone for the night. He didn’t like being without Elaine, but he didn’t like having Danny, Aviva, and tiny Gur sleep over either. He was resolved to make good use of the hour or so left before he’d get drowsy and head upstairs to bed.
A cool breeze from the living room window was blowing on his neck. A nearly full moon was serially obscured and revealed by long, dark clouds that hung low in the sky. He knew this not from looking out the window but from watching the blurred reflection of this celestial game of cat and mouse on the burnished walnut surface of the Steinway baby grand that stood in the far corner of the room, just before it opened into the dining area. The piano was far too big for the space, a fact he had been tactfully reminding Elaine of on and off for the last 23 years, since they moved into this bungalow walking distance from campus. But she would not part with it, and on evenings like this, it was certainly a lovely feature of the room.
“It’s the piano.” Karin shivered. The music had woken her from an unremembered nightmare. “Someone is playing the piano.”
Or one-eyed her from under his pillow. His muffled voice sounded like it was reaching her from a cave below the floor.
“Call the police.”
“My piano,” Karin said. “Someone is playing my piano.” She raised herself on her elbows, felt a creak in her lower back, and looked down on her research assistant.
Or turned over on his side so that he could use both eyes. “That’s impossible. There are two of us in the apartment. Of the two of us, only you know how to play the piano. And you are here. Ergo, no one is playing the piano.”
An arpeggio sounded in the treble, and was then taken up by the bass.
Your honor, I realize that it is irregular that counsel for a member of the courtroom audience approach the bench. But I hope that you will hold your peace and allow me, before you hand down the sentences of the men and women convicted in the Holyland case, to present my client’s plea.
My client—this is he, sitting here in the front row, the one with the funny nose, no, he’s not in a coma, that’s just his way of displaying interest—is a man of modest means, a freelance writer whose words have quickened the hearts of a handful of readers around the globe. He’s a family man, devoted to his community and his country, the salt of the earth, as we like to say. Unlike the movers and shakers who sit in the dock before you, Haim Watzman is barely known to anyone of importance. Like millions of other Israeli citizens, he labors long hours silently, without wealth and fame. And he has come here to ask, Judge Rosen, why he, too, should not be provided with room and board by the state for the next several years.
Has he committed a crime? No, he has committed no crime—because Israeli society has given him no opportunity to do so. Had he been born into wealth, he might have used it to corrupt one of our leaders. Had he been appointed to a position of power, he might have used his influence for personal gain. Never having been invested with the public trust, he was barred from violating it.
The picture I see each morning when I turn on my computer is of my younger son, Niot, in a graveyard. His hands are on his hips, his head is cocked, his eyes look straight at me, and his lips are pressed into a half-smile that says, “What, you again?” He’s wearing a gray coat, striped on the shoulders with the straps of a red backpack. Under the coat is a blue Adidas sweatshirt and on his head is an indescribable hat, which perhaps has something to do with a defunct Polish yeshiva. The cemetery is in Poland, and the photograph was taken during his high school class trip to the concentration camps. Now he’s in another cemetery.
I didn’t miss him then. It was a time when I never missed any of my children. That is, I missed them in the sense that I enjoyed when they were home and wondered how they were doing when they were not, but I never felt that they were out of reach, that I desperately needed to talk to or touch them; I never feared that they would not come back. No longer, because Niot went away and didn’t.
When a child dies, he becomes incessantly present. Niot is always in my thoughts, all the time, and not in the back as he was when he was off at school or in the army. He’s always looking at me and asking, “What, you again?”
He’s close up in my mind, and right there on my computer screen, but so distant. As of the Shabbat in the middle of Pesach it’s three years now, and he grips my heart but recedes; I hold him tight but he is ever more distant.
Niot connected with friends and basketballs, not with poetry, but I often think of poetry when I think of him. Right now it’s a poem by one of my favorite living American poets, Sharon Dolin, and it’s called “The Problem of Desertion.” That’s the title, but it’s also the first line, because after it the poem goes like this:
occurs when time feels like space
and the dead are stuck