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 (24 page)

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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He propped a miniature volume of the Talmud on his lap. It would set the proper tone between them. Then there was the matter of praying
mincha
. Where on earth would he find a quorum of ten men at a horse ranch?

Tamar was rearranging her things on the overhead compartment railing. She wore a periwinkle blouse, its droopy poet sleeves filling him with nostalgia for a time period he barely knew. She had swept up her auburn hair in a high ponytail, a few wavy strands hanging around her face. The middle doors to the bus opened and a frazzled woman struggled with a baby carriage. Tamar rushed over before he got a chance and helped the woman maneuver onto the bus. He noticed how she attracted a pleasant attention. While they’d been waiting in the ticket line, three separate people had asked her the time.

More people came on the bus and he sank low in his seat. He knew they looked a poor fit, a pretty young woman and a middle-aged man in a silly visor hat.

The bus driver pushed pedals, pulled knobs, coaxing the bus to life. At the outskirts of Jerusalem Isaac uttered a short prayer for a safe journey. The bus bumped along dusty Jericho streets, and Isaac stared out at trees with intensely red and purple leaves; old Arab houses; lush fruit and vegetable stands; a banana plantation; quiet, still palm trees; and elderly Arabs moving slowly in the impossibly hot and humid air, even at eight in
the morning, on this July day. A tiny woman crouched over a hemp mat with watermelon seeds spread out and drying in the early sun.

He took out a bag of peanuts. Not far from the road, an Arab man and a teenage boy were prodding sheep along. The older shepherd wore a kaffiyeh and an NYPD T-shirt, the younger one in a black Chicago Bulls T-shirt. Tamar gestured toward them, smiling a little. “Love these guys with their mishmash of cultures.” Then she thumped the side of her head. “What am I saying? How could I love them? They hate me.”

“Who? Palestinian Arabs? Or Israeli Arabs?”

“Puh-leez.” She rolled her eyes at him. “Makes no difference. I’m the enemy of both. I’d be dumb to think otherwise.”

“Don’t you wonder why?” Isaac asked her.

“Duh. They think we took their land. Well, it’s our God-given land,” she retorted. “Says so in the same Bible that Mohammed supposedly valued.” She gave him a baleful stare. “Don’t tell me you have a problem with that?”

“No,” he said, amused. “Why would I?”

“Well, you shouldn’t. God promised he’d return us to this land. That was twenty-five hundred years ago. And here we are. Doesn’t that just blow your mind?”

He watched her as she spoke, riveted by her eyebrows, first plunging, then hiking up again. He said, “It does. All the time. Though I have to admit—when I first came to Israel, I wasn’t in an idealistic frame of mind. To me, Israel was a vacation, an escape, just a place to recover.” He winced, recalling his first weeks in Israel just after his mother had died. “And then something came over me. I’d be riding on a bus or walking along Jaffa Road, and I’d feel the most amazing sensation. That I was fulfilling my destiny—not only my personal destiny, but God’s plan for the Jewish People. It’s an extraordinary feeling.”

Tamar nodded, her eyes reflective. Isaac listened to the hum of the bus, feeling a camaraderie between them. He ate a few peanuts and gestured with his bag toward Tamar, who shook her head. “The strange thing is, ever since I’ve gotten to know Mustafa I’ve started praying for the Arabs.”

She turned in her seat, nonplussed. “Praying for Arabs? What kind of prayer could you possible say for people who want to murder you?” Again the working of her brows, like some kind of machine cranking up. “Like
in
Fiddler on the Roof
when the rabbi prays for the tsar to be well and ‘keep far away from the Jews’?”

“I’ll grant you, it’s a tough one.” He picked a shell off his pants. “The only thing I could come up with—that they should want to have a good life and love their children more than they hate us and want to destroy our children.”

Tamar considered. “I could handle that prayer.” After a few moments she asked, “What’re you reading?”

He showed her the cover. “Babylonian Talmud—tractate Nashim.” He pointed with his chin toward her book. She held up:
Discover the Fun in Fundraising
. Then she said, “Why am I even reading this?” She launched into a whole saga about work. Her bosses were expecting her to pinch-hit as a fund-raiser while still carrying a secretary’s load. Meanwhile, no pay raise was forthcoming.

“Did you ask for one?” he wanted to know.

She shook her head. “It’s a yeshiva. I feel funny asking.”

To which he answered firmly, “Ask.”

Almost simultaneously, they put aside their own books and stared out the window. He pointed out foliage, fleeting animals, and bits of Israeli history inspired by the scenery. They broke a Shalom candy bar in two and ate it.

At a mountain north of Jericho, Isaac half-stood, pointing. “The Sartaba Mountains,” he murmured excitedly to Tamar. The very mountain where, in ancient Israel, the Jews had waved lights to let the whole country know they had sighted the first sliver of New Moon. The mountain was mentioned in the Talmud. Ancient Jewish history before their eyes. He sucked in the passing views, memorizing them. He so rarely left Jerusalem. Gold, beige, and peachy stones of Jerusalem gave way to low, majestic mountain ranges, rocky desert on the Jordanian side, Israeli agricultural villages on the other, green houses for growing flowers, fruits and vegetables.

“Did that reporter ever get back to you about the pomegranate story?” Tamar asked, bringing him out of his reverie.

He frowned. “Not only didn’t he call me but yesterday I contacted the papers he said he wrote for and they’d never heard of him.”

She made a face that screamed
Yikes!

Yikes was right. But he didn’t want to think about this now. He was
entranced by the views. Except for Hebron and Rachel’s tomb and other holy sites, he had never properly toured Israel. But wasn’t all of this land holy and worth seeing?

They almost missed their stop an hour later, a treeless area with vast tracts of dry grass and hills. They walked along a dusty dirt path, the sun pressing on them like an iron, until they spotted the horses, maybe six of them, corralled by a wood fence. The ranch loomed ahead, a few tall bony trees scattered around it. The utterly secular nature of this outing struck him as absurd. He, Isaac, a haberdasher from the Lower East Side, was going to mount a horse!

“I always wanted to marry someone I could roll down a hill with,” Tamar remarked as they climbed a low mound.

“Oh, really?” He stared at her above the rims of his glasses, one brow faintly arched. “I thought you wanted a Torah scholar.”

“I see no contradiction there.” She looked candidly at him. “Can you roll down hills?”

“Tamar, be glad I’m going horseback riding.” But he smiled as he said it.

At the ranch, he removed his jacket. He walked down a wood-paneled hall, gazing at black-and-white-framed photos of celebrities posing with a big-cheeked man who appeared to be the ranch’s owner. The hall led to a bar. Tanned youths in shorts and T-shirts slouched on high leather-topped stools. The room with its mounted saddles and gleaming bottles struck him as utterly alien—not even a piece of home.

The horse instructor, a muscled, square-jawed Israeli, strode toward them. “Do you want the half hour, the hour, or the two hours?” His voice was low, manly, a slow cowboy drawl in the holy tongue.

“Half hour is fine,” Isaac said just as Tamar answered, “At least one hour.”

They stared at each other. “I’ve never ridden before,” he said mildly.

“We didn’t travel all the way from Jerusalem for a half-hour ride,” Tamar said in a cajoling voice, “did we?”

“All right,” he said. “One hour,” he told the instructor, staring at his jaw. It jutted like no other Jewish jaw he had ever seen, something out of a men’s magazine or tobacco advertisement. The instructor’s feet made solid contact with the earth as if each step were saying, “I am a man, I am a man.” Walking beside him, Isaac felt like the scrawny “before” picture in
the muscle men ads. But didn’t the sages write, “Who is a valiant man? One who conquers his evil impulse”? A different idea of manhood.

Above each stall, a different horse’s name was inscribed in black curlique letters: Six-Day, Yom Kippur, Independence, Suez, and Madonna.

“What’s with Madonna?” Tamar asked the horse instructor. “I thought the last war was ‘Operation Peace for the Galilee’.”

“Too long,” he bristled. “Never will I call a horse ‘Operation Peace for the Galilee’.”

It
was
a clunky name for the Israeli war in Lebanon. “How about Galilee, then?” Tamar offered.

He stopped, his hands on a stall gate. “That sounds better. I’ll think about it.”

“And your name?” Isaac asked, trying to keep a sardonic edge out of his voice.

“I am Assaf,” he pronounced in that Israeli-male way that gave weight to simple statements. He led out the horses, making
kootchy-coo
noises to each one. Tamar placed her hands on the saddle, a foot in the stirrup of Six-Day, a frisky, dark brown horse. Assaf stopped her. He pointed to her skirt. “What’s this?”

“I wear it to be modest,” she explained.

“You can’t be modest in a skirt—not on a horse!” He put a hand on his incredible jaw. “You are making a mockery of religion and a mockery of my horse!”

“No, look!” She mounted the horse with agility, the material of her Aline denim skirt hooping outward over her legs. “See?” She sat prettily atop Six-Day, who was sniffing the flicking tail of Independence, intended, apparently, for Isaac.

Assaf grunted.
“B’seder.”
All right.

When Isaac tried to stick his foot in the stirrup, the horse took a few steps forward, and he almost tripped to the ground. In the end, they needed two people to help him mount.

They rode single file, first Assaf with his golden retriever to keep him company, followed by Isaac, sitting rather tentatively on his horse, and at the end, Tamar. No galloping, hardly any trotting. Geriatric, just as Tamar had promised. But as the horses resignedly ambled their way over a hill, the place at last began to live up to its name—Yoffi HaGalil, the
beauty of the Galilee. The grass had become greener, the hills more rolling. Poppies, jonquils, and anemones lay like colored jewels spilled onto a plush carpet.

Below, at the edge of a hill, appeared a fat blue ellipse of the Kinneret Sea. His lungs filled, bursting with pride at the beauty of the place, and he sang, “This land is your land; this land is my land, from the Red Sea waters, to the Golan farmlands. From the Dead Sea salt beds, to the Be’er Sheva deserts, this land belongs to you and me …” changing the words in the Woody Guthrie song. Tamar laughed at his improvisations.

He felt relaxed and unencumbered by problems, though problems he had. Itai Shani’s warning finger and the reporter’s phony credentials registered for a moment in his brain, but he blocked them out. Later he would think about everything. Later. The day was too beautiful. A wind from the Kinneret Sea fanned across the hill, making the grass shiver. The air against his skin swirled with a lightness, lighter than what he was used to in Jerusalem.

Assaf rode on serenely, his dog yapping at an orange butterfly flitting between the horses’ legs. The instructor gave names to the flowers (the astonishing pink doe-faced one with the upraised praying petals was a cyclamen), told tales about the Kinneret Sea and showed the spot where years ago an American photographer got shot by terrorists and had a wildlife site dedicated to her. “She was lucky,” Assaf said, his deep brown eyes pensive. “If she’d died today, she’d get no monument. Too much competition from other terror victims.”

Isaac threw another look at Tamar. Lucky, indeed! As they rode on, he couldn’t stop turning back and communicating to her through mock eyebrow raisings and exaggerated expressions which set off hysterics in Tamar. She had plaited her ponytail, and with her laughing extravagantly, enough laughter for a whole family, she looked like a girl of sixteen.

Later they sat eating a picnic lunch under a carob tree. “You seem so relaxed,” she said.

“I am.” He took water from his canteen to wash his hands and made the blessing over bread. He bit into an avocado, tomato, and lemon sandwich she had prepared. “Excellent,” he declared. He dabbed at his mouth with a floral napkin. Her little feminine touches moved him considerably.

Tamar sat at the base of a carob tree fanning a huge leaf against her
neck, her eyes closed, her restless eyebrows now peaceful and still. She murmured, her eyes still closed, “You’re going to do terrific things in this world, Isaac.”

Isaac crumpled the floral napkin. He sat up, staring out skeptically. The words sounded familiar. Hadn’t Gitty once said the same thing to him? Practically the same words in that same admiring tone.

A second later, all his doubts came crashing down. Maybe this would be like Gitty all over again. Maybe Tamar would find somebody better suited to her. Or someone younger. He had no business being here. It was ridiculous.
He
was ridiculous. “Tamar,” he began.

“Don’t tell me.” Her eyes remained closed, though a brow twitched. “Whatever it is you have to say, tell me in an hour. I’m enjoying myself too much now.”

Isaac smiled sadly. Her radar for doom was accurate.

“All right.” Her eyes sprang open. “Tell me why this won’t work. Just don’t assume you have me in your pocket, okay? Because that ticks me off.”

“I assume no such thing.” He groped for a plastic goblet Tamar had packed “But even if you were interested in me, I fear I would suspect your interest.” He took a cautious swallow of sparkling grape juice.

Her mouth fell open. “What?”

“Let me put it this way,” he amended. “Why does the ‘right one’ have to be more than you? Know more? Be older? Wiser? Not that I am any of these things, except for maybe having thirteen years on you.”

“What makes you think I want someone like that?” She sat up on her knees, eyes indignant.

“I know from the dating stories you told me. I know what you’re looking for.” No, she couldn’t wiggle out of this one. “So, one could say the obvious,” he singsonged to a Talmudic cadence. “Your father was what they call the absent kind, no?” His thumb looped through the air. “So then in walks me,” he tapered off.

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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