Jerusalem is a cipher; Jerusalem under snow is a cipher erased.
The high priestess of a god whose name I didn’t quite catch offers me a cardboard cup of spiced wine. Her bare arms are goosebumped from the cold and her cheeks flushed from the wine. I think I am in love with her but, given my luck, her cult no doubt requires her to be virginal. The pope breezes by and his vestments unfurl against my hand, spilling the wine over the high priestess’s crescent scepter, or perhaps it is a scythe. She smiles, but fire flashes from her eyes, and she turns away.
To get to the Purim party, I first navigated the decline of Givat Shaul Street, sliding once, twice, and three times on accumulating snow. I passed children in masks shouting in Yiddish, following men in black coats and women under white turbans. Just three weeks before I had moved into a shared room in a walkup in the dingy public housing project that presides over the top of the street. I found the ad seeking a fourth for a flat on the bulletin board of the Givat Ram campus. Sixty-seven dollars a month seemed like a rent I could afford on an income I hadn’t even begun to make yet as a freelance writer. In the meantime I was earning some shekels, the old kind, which replaced the lira just three weeks before, by working afternoon shifts in a Super Clean laundromat on Palmach Street on the other side of town. The number 15 bus, its route designed by a smashed navigator with a bad sense of direction, took me each day from Givat Shaul to Palmach. But to get to the party I needed the number 8, which left from the Central Bus Station on the plateau below.
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.
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.
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.
Yael and Aharon squeezed into a corner of the standing area by the rear door of the 34 bus, which smelled of exhaust and wet ponchos. Until last week they had gone down to Ben-Zakkai each Sunday and Wednesday to get the 4 alef to Mt. Scopus but now there was this new line that went to the university from Pierre Koenig Street, closer to home. The people were not the ones they were used to seeing. Bracing himself against the handrail as the bus made a sharp right onto Emek Refa’im, Aharon unshouldered his backpack and opened the zipper, removing a damp copy of an article called “Identity and Freedom” by Amartya Sen, which he should have read over the weekend. The floor was too soaked to put the backpack down and the space too cramped for him to get the straps back over his shoulder, so he wedged it between his back and the window and leaned against it.
“You never play the flute anymore,” Yael repeated, looking out at the rain.
The murkiness of the storm-clouded morning was broken by a lightning flash. Yael grabbed his wrist and the article fell to the floor. He cursed under his breath and, apologizing at each stage of descent as he bent down and pushed against the government workers, high schoolers, and nurses who stood around him, picked up the stapled papers, now stained dark with grimy water from umbrellas and boots. The thunder sounded and Yael grabbed his wrist again and put her head on his soggy shoulder.
Ornan was staring at his locker and muttering under his breath when I tossed my backpack onto the bench and felt for my keys in my pocket. I’ve had a bottom locker for years at the Jerusalem Pool, hard to see into but easy to pull my gear out of. He first showed up maybe a year and a half ago, when he was assigned a box in the middle-row to my right. He was tall and bony, with shiny, straight, dark hair that smelled of Head and Shoulders. A student, maybe, or just out of the army, from the look of him. He wore baggy trunks and swam badly, at least as far as style goes, raising his head out of the water each time his left hand swung up, splashing the surface with his palms. But, despite all my care with my stroke, he was much faster than I was. In the end, length and leanness of body wins out.
It was hard for me to make out what he was muttering because I just then had a coughing fit. Some virus got me last week and whenever that happens I cough for two or three weeks after I get better. Even after I caught my breath I didn’t try to listen because Asher and Alfi, the two cab drivers who dress on the bench behind me, were joshing about a dispatcher. I like to listen to their banter. Ornan just stood there, not making a move to open his locker. Asher and Alfi went out to the sauna and by that time I was suited up and hanging my shirt up on one of the hooks on the wall. Over the heating system that filled the locker room with mildew air, I could make out Ornan’s voice: “I’ll kill him, I’ll murder him, I’ll stick a knife in his chest and slice down to his balls.” It seemed so out of character that I couldn’t help staring at him in surprise. He looked back and kept on muttering. Continue reading Justice — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report→
She laughed and shook her head as she unrolled the clingy plastic from around her slug-shaped sandwich. Down below, raucous teenagers gamboled in a spring that seemed to be the source of the river along which she and her companions had hiked all morning. She laughed at how easy it had been not to think about it, how well her plan had gone. Her companions were no longer visible ahead. Soon they’d wonder about her and send someone back in search. In the meantime, she’d have something to eat.
The rains had not yet come, yet the Tzipori River had flowed gently but surely along its terraced channel as they walked beside it that morning. At one point it bowed and nearly circled a low hill on which a tiny village perched. Children played in a schoolyard. The leader had given the village a name that she could no longer remember. Further on was an old millhouse that you could now rent out for weddings and bar mitzvahs. There the trail had crossed the river (all of three meters wide) and she had followed the others over half-submerged stones. The water, which the leader said was partly sewage, washed over her boots. Last to cross, she had probed the riverbed with her poles to steady herself. She thought of turning back but did not.
She hadn’t hiked seriously since her teenage scout years, which were three decades past by now. Back then, at tough spots, like the river crossing, the boys were always ready and eager to help. Some were very serious about it, as if pulling her up a boulder or guiding her over a narrow spot in a path above a canyon was the very reason that they had been placed on this earth. Others had laughed at her fears, in a big-brotherly way (she was the oldest in her family, and had always wanted a big brother). In this group, today, the others were obliging but cool.
Ilana elbowed me and eyed the couple sitting to our left in the Hirsch Theater. Shaken out of the reverie brought on by the Tarshiha Orchestra’s rendition of Um Kulthum’s hit song “Raq al-Habib,” “The Servitude of Love,” I followed her gaze. The woman to my left was tapping out a text message on her Android as she whispered to her husband, who had a large knitted blue-and-white kipah on his head.
“Hadas,” she said, apparently in response to his question.
“Did you tell her?” he asked.
“Doing it right now,” she nodded.
I caught her eye and put a finger to my lips. I also pointed to the phone, as if to say that the glow was distracting me. She shrugged and muttered “Almost done.”
“Did she say anything about Ya’akov? Why he didn’t come home?”
The young woman who was standing in for the late great Egyptian chanteuse finished the song with a flourish and the audience cheered. Nasim Dawkar, the concert master and conductor, called another member of the chorus up to the solo microphone to sing another song composed by Muhammad al-Qasabgi, to whose works the night’s concert was dedicated. The woman at the mike, plump and heavily made up, launched into an Um Kulthum favorite, “Inta ‘Omri,” “You are My Life.” Ilana smiled and mouthed the words silently—it’s a song her mother used to sing to her and which Ilana sang to our own children.
The old clock on the café counter inside ticked at least five times before the men began to laugh. At first it was just Nissim, whose trinket shop was just up the hill on Strauss Street, on the border of Mea Shearim. He guffawed as if he didn’t really want to, as if guffawing were the last thing he should be doing at this moment, when they were about to set out for a battle in which many of them were sure to die. But he couldn’t help himself, and when Shlomo joined in with a real belly laugh, coming straight from his very prominent belly, Nissim felt free to enjoy himself. Then Meir joined in, his thumbs pressing out against the straps of the threadbare paratrooper’s pigeon vest that he had been incongruously issued to carry his ammunition in. Arthur, the lost American with the mustache, banged his rifle against the Ta’amon’s display window so hard that Feibel looked up from his newspaper, wiped his hands on his apron, and shuffled out to yell at them.
When the laughter died down and Feibel had gone back to spreading out used teabags to dry, Nissim ventured to ask Pini whether any of it was actually true. Pini shot him a condescending glance and Nissim mumbled, “Well, the stories you hear about Paris!”
Is there a dictionary of smiles? I need one. I know what my own smiles mean. I think of my face as a simple platform. It exhibits a range of smiles that clearly convey a certain range of messages, from “that’s nice” to “go away.” The male face has evolved so many layers of meaning that you need to be a master linguist to comprehend them all. That I am not.
One example is the smile on this boy sitting in the seat across from me on Atlanta’s MARTA train. We both got on at the airport. I wheeled in the small carry-on that I’d taken on a two-day business trip, a matter regarding software validation that I won’t bore you with. I have a meeting at the office at eleven and I should get in just in time to run to the bathroom beforehand. In a rush, and with this annoying and ugly eye patch, I am unsteady on my feet and stumbled as I board the train. Someone catches my elbow from behind, and I mutter an automatic but not very nice thank you.
I take the aisle facing seat by the door, stowing the wheelie bag underneath. Extracting my Kindle from my purse, I intend to get back into my book club’s latest selection, Homer’s Odyssey. It’s one of those books that must have become a classic simply because back then there was nothing else around to read.
It’s only then that I glace at the seat across from me and see the guy who, apparently, is the one who steadied me. Dressed in a dirty ski jacket with a wool hat sticking out of one pocket, he’s unshouldering a large backpack. He has tousled light brown hair and a beard maybe a week old of a slightly lighter color. He peers at the map behind the side-facing seat next to the door, sits down, and smiles at me. Continue reading Nobody Smiles — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report→