Read In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist Online

Authors: Ruchama King Feuerman

Tags: #Fiction, #Jewish, #Contemporary Women, #Religious, #Political

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (2 page)

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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An old man, his white beard resting on his chin like a cloud, motioned to one person and then another. His silver-eyed gaze looked as bright and
happy as an inventor with his machine. This must be the rebbe, Isaac thought, and he got comfortable on the stoop while he waited his turn. He watched a plump, dark-skinned woman in torn stockings eat a pizza slice with olives sprinkled on top. She seemed to relish each bite, her nostrils flaring and contracting with each swallow. Suddenly, the pizza fell splat, cheese facedown, onto the courtyard stones. Isaac stared at the woman, and the woman lifted her eyes and stared back at him. A heartbreak in her raw dark eyes. “Can I still eat it?” she rasped, reaching for the dirty slice. Isaac shrugged and took out his wallet. “Maybe you should buy yourself another pizza,” he said, and gave her a few shekels. She pocketed the money but scraped the cheese off the pizza and continued eating.

Finally the old man, the rebbe, motioned to him. Isaac followed him indoors and down a narrow hall to a small room with a table, the walls and shelves heavy with books. Isaac spoke to the rebbe from a place of defeat—no wife, no children, not even a job he could say was a higher calling. And now, his mother dead. “I’ve lost my bearings,” he sobbed a little. “I don’t know what to do anymore. Does this sound crazy?”

The rebbe said in English softened by a European accent, “Life is not a clean or an easy business. You need to talk and I need to listen.”

And Rebbe Yehudah listened. Then, with both his hands the rebbe pushed a paper cup of seltzer across the table to Isaac. The sleeves of his white kaftan fell back and exposed the tattoo—thin survivor arms. He slid over a perfectly rectangular piece of honey cake on a napkin.
“Makh a bracha un trink a bissel.”
Eat something and take a drink. A spider crawled on the napkin, and when Isaac lifted his hand to flatten it, the rebbe put a hand on his wrist. “Though it’s not forbidden to kill,” he said, “maybe you want to consider letting this creature live.” Isaac stared at him and set his hand down. The rebbe said, “Stay here awhile, if it suits you.”

For the next three weeks Isaac came to the courtyard, helping out as the need arose. His managerial experience at the haberdashery—all those years spent getting the right size sock, underwear, or shirt for cranky clients—now came in handy. Sometimes he pitched in when the rebbe or his rebbetzin was cooking up a batch of herring for the food deliveries to the poor. One day the rebbe spoke to him. “My wife and I can no longer come and go as we once did. You are young. The needs are great. You can help.”
Isaac’s heart began to jerk and pound. The rebbe said, “Here you can have a place to eat, a bed to sleep. It isn’t much by way of this world, but may it be a blessing for us both.”

Isaac answered the call.

March 1999: Jerusalem

Mustafa raised his pronger and stabbed a clear plastic bag, a candy wrapper, and a tissue box. With his mitted hand, he slid the garbage into a sludge-colored rucksack slung over his good shoulder. He poked at the Islamic museum ticket stubs on the ground, then giving up, guided them with his sweeper into the dustpan. He liked the pronger better than the dustpan. Holding it, he could pretend he was a warrior, or at least a skilled worker. The children from the elementary school followed him and, when they weren’t calling him Crazy Monkey Head Mister Garbage, begged to use the pronger. But the dustpan was nothing special. Every housewife had one.

His eyes fixed on a clump of soggy tissues under a caper bush. So many tissues everywhere. At least dry tissues could be speared with the pronger, but up here, on the Haram al-Sharif, where people screamed and wailed all day long, he mostly found wet, falling-apart ones, and once again he was forced to use his dustpan. At least the five months of winter had just passed, and he wouldn’t have to worry about soggy, no good, impossible-to-sweep trash. But the sun made problems, too, cooking the garbage to the ground like a
egg in the pan.

He swung his body around to look at the next bunch of tourists straggling up the Magharbeh ramp that led from the Jew wall to the Noble Sanctuary, or to what the Jews called the Temple Mount, where they said their house of prayer used to be. He had heard the Israeli tour guides say this so often, he no longer ground his teeth or grimaced when he heard it. Anyway, let them say what they wanted. The Dome of the Rock shrine was golden and beautiful, while the Jews had to be satisfied with their dingy wall below.

He rubbed his neck. It ached from holding it too long in the wrong way. The normal way for him, the way he had been born, was with a head turned, looking over his right shoulder. He could move his neck two centimeters to the front to make him look a little less strange, but after twenty minutes the effort drained him, and he went back to his regular crookedness. Why did he even bother to try?

Still, an old story haunted him, the time a crazy neighbor tried to twist his head straight on his neck when he was less than a year old. He had heard the story from his aunt Kamila. “I was the one who saved you from getting your neck broken,” she liked to remind him. He must have gotten hurt anyway. This must be why he hadn’t spoken a word until he was ten. At an early age, the words got stuck in his neck like little pebbles no matter how many times he tried clearing his throat.

Then one day he said, just like that, “The soup has too much pepper.” His mother threw a dish towel at him. “Satan is inside Mustafa!” she shouted. Oh, the commotion he caused.
. The whole village came to see. Afterward, they still looked at him the same way, no matter how much he spoke. Too stupid to learn a trade, his parents decided, or to go to school. Too stupid to marry and have a family.

A kind lady from England taught him to read, and after lessons, she brought him to a church in a nearby village. Of course he hid these church visits from his parents, though they themselves hadn’t fasted during Ramadan in years. Even then, hardly able to read, dumb as the earth and rocks around him, he knew he was doing something dangerous and forbidden, but he loved the little toys the lady gave him—cars the size of his thumb, a frog with a tongue that wiggled when he pinched the stomach—and he went with her each week. Soon he knew more English and Hebrew than his brothers and sisters. Except for his heavy Arabic accent, some might have mistaken him for an Israeli. But his family laughed at him anyway, with that crooked head and his having to walk sideways to get anywhere without bumping into things. They had all grown up and gotten regular jobs. Tariq fixed washing machines in Bethlehem, another brother was a manager in a casino in Jericho, a third became a bookkeeper. His sisters were nurses and one a hairdresser—all of them married with children. But he spoke the foreign languages better than anyone in the family, and he was proud of this. He knew something
they didn’t—he who had never gone to school.

He emptied his rucksack into a bin and made his way to the Dome of the Rock shrine, or what he liked to call the Golden Lady. The Persian carpets around the holy rock needed to be straightened, and he squatted and arranged them so that they circled flowerlike around the rock. He loved this place best because of its beautiful smell. Sheikh Tawil, his boss, said it was a smell of the hereafter.

A group of Israeli tourists thronged by, the women covering their bare arms and legs in shawls provided by the Waqf officials. Mustafa gazed at them. Sinners. Sinning according to their Torah and the Five Books of Moses that forbade them from walking on this holy ground, some parts holier than others. He had seen the rabbis’ sign on the Gate of Magharbeh forbidding Jews to enter.

Somewhere up here they claimed was the Holy of Holies, a place only the Jewish high priest could enter on their holiest day of the year, yet look how the stupid Israelis called out, “Yooo!” or “Wow!” in their foolish shorts and bright T-shirts, not caring where they slapped their feet down. Well, every man sinned according to his own religion. In all his years on the mountain, Mustafa had gone only once to the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray. Mostly he prayed alone, when he remembered.
I am a sinner, too
, he thought, and a pang lodged deep in his chest.

Now he stepped over a pile of rocks and nearly tripped. The workers were supposed to clean up, but look how they never finished the job. Sometimes they asked him to haul away these big chunks of stone, not things you could just sweep. Then he had to use a wheelbarrow. But why should he do this? Was he a construction laborer? So he did the work when asked, but slowly, sometimes letting the wheelbarrow tilt to the side and spill its contents. “
Sorry!” he’d exclaim, cuffing the side of his head.

At least he had a job. Many fifty-five-year-old men with no education or trade were beggars, made sick by years on the street. The life of a beggar could have been his. His mother’s cousin, the one who got him this job, had warned him, “Don’t stand out in any way or bring attention on yourself. It would be like drawing attention to a mistake of Allah, and on the Noble Sanctuary, that would be improper.” So Mustafa quietly did his work. The pay covered his simple needs and also came with benefits. “Work and you will be strong. Sit and you will stink.” So his
mother used to say when she sent him off to sweep in a button factory at the age of eleven.

In the distance he saw his good friend: tall Hamdi with the big stomach and the big lips like a lady movie star. Hamdi was the only one who never called him
like the others. Deformed and crippled.

Mustafa called out,
“Salaam Aleykum
,” but Hamdi turned his head to talk to a little boy, and Mustafa got no
“Aleykum salaam”
greeting in return. Well, maybe his friend didn’t see. He let loose a stream of spit into his rucksack and continued on to the bathrooms near the elementary school that needed cleaning. Afterward, he surveyed his work: a so-so job, a so-so day.

Nobody saw him when his shift was over, and he shuffled off, moving sideways like a crab, passing under the arched Gate of the Cotton Merchant with its many-colored stones, until he made his way into the market. At a stand in the souk he bought a bottle of Coca-Cola. From a sullen teenage boy with brilliant blue eyes he bought a few moist figs. He ate them and drank the Coca-Cola for strength. He waded through the souk, buying vegetables here and there as he lurched his way toward the little room he rented from a carpet seller. No one bothered him, especially when he carried his tools of the trade. No one saw him, really, except for the children who teased. A janitor, even one with a crooked head, was always a little invisible. When he stood in front of a mirror straight on, even then he couldn’t see himself—his head turned only the other way, looking over his right shoulder.

Now he fingered a
with sequins and turquoise embroidery. Maybe he would buy the robe for his mother and give it to someone from his village who happened to pray at the Haram. He hadn’t been back in his village in years. His mother always had a reason he shouldn’t come to visit. He picked up an olivewood camel and smiled at its haughty expression. When the shop owner scowled at him between puffs on his
pipe, Mustafa set it down.

He lifted his eyes and saw a tall Jew passing between the shadows cast by the stalls’ rooftops. It looked as if he were walking on a thin strip of sunlight. The man’s beard was threaded with gray and brown—except for a dark patch above and under his lips—and he wore a hat on his head and a black suit. A religious Jew, he thought. The bony religious kind who
prayed all day long at their ugly wall. Mustafa watched as the Jew sidestepped a hanging sheep and a boy pushing a wheelbarrow of eggplants, the man’s steps cautious but not afraid. He’s crazy, Mustafa thought. This was no safe place for a Jew.
Yahudi majnun

As the man went by, Mustafa called to him in Hebrew, “Aren’t you frightened?” Then he bit down on his lower lip. Why should he offer good advice to this, this Jew? Yet a day had gone by and the only words he’d heard were that of the stupid shopkeeper’s.

The man stopped and looked at him, staring where his head and eyes actually were. He said, “Should I be?” in a Hebrew that sounded funny to Mustafa’s ears, and pointed to his iron pronger.

Mustafa looked at his tools and saw how terrifying they truly appeared, weapons to kill. His lips twisted into a smile. “No, no.” He shook his head. “This is for my work. I work over there,” and pointed the pronger toward the Noble Sanctuary. “I clean.”

The man’s gaze followed the tip of his pronger. “You clean the Temple Mount?”

“I clean the Noble Sanctuary,” he stated with an extra boldness. “I’m the janitor there.”

The man’s watery eyes looked stunned. “You clean the mountain. This is a great deed. You are keeping our holy mountain—God’s mountain—clean and wonderful.” He leaned over and briefly took one of Mustafa’s dusty hands into both of his clean ones, and then he moved away, murmuring, “Like the kohein.”

Mustafa stared down at his right hand, the one the Jew had touched. A kohein. He knew what a kohein was. He had heard the tour guides speak about these Jewish holy priests who took care of their temple in ancient times. He stared at the retreating Jew. He took a step forward and stood in the sunlit strip between the stalls. What did the man mean—he a kohein? The Jew was disappearing into the alley, about to turn at the copper and brass stall, and Mustafa opened his mouth and shouted, “Mister, where can I find you? What’s your name?”

“Isaac Markowitz, Seven Ninveh Street,” the man called back and kept walking.

“Isaac Markowitz,” he repeated. The name sounded like an old book, like history. “Isaac Markowitz,” he whispered. “I am Mustafa.”


Isaac’s stomach tensed under his suit jacket. He looked out the kitchen window and saw the people in the courtyard: here a morose Hassidic teenager, there an out-of-work musician, and next to him a beggar, and there in the far corner near the rosemary bushes, someone who had brought his German shepherd, even though he had been asked not to.

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
3.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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