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 (3 page)

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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It wasn’t going to be easy today, not with the news he had to tell them.

The kabbalist’s assistant settled the brim of his black hat and stepped out onto the pocked, desert-colored stones.

A shiny purple flap of cellophane (probably used to wrap yesterday’s Purim holiday baskets) blew itself against the olive tree in the center of the courtyard. Before he could snatch it, he saw an empty vodka bottle under the stoop and tossed it into a garbage pail, then frowned, unsure what to do with a sultry Queen Esther mask he had just stepped on. The sun hung wanly in the March sky, as though it, too, were hungover along with the rest of the country that had spent the holiday fulfilling its religious duty to get drunk.

“When is the rebbe coming out?” a grizzled-haired old woman called out fretfully.

“I heard a rumor we can’t see the rebbe anymore,” said the bearded saxophonist. He gripped his instrument tightly. “Is it true?”

“I have to see Rebbe Yehudah!” Mazal the beggar rested her bulging pita sandwich on her ample lap. “He always says I make him happy!” Her guttural trembling voice spoke for all of them.

A murmuring went through the courtyard, rumbled past the jasmine and honeysuckle bushes littered with holiday garbage and swept past three women leaning against the iron gate. Isaac heard the fear in the murmurings. His own fear and concern for the rebbe he swallowed back.

He raised both hands for quiet. The German shepherd yelped sadly, refusing to stop, until finally, he and his owner left. Isaac coughed a few times and waited for the courtyard to settle down. “Unfortunately things have changed.” He paused to wipe a trickle of sweat with his jacket sleeve. “The doctor told us this morning that the rebbe isn’t well enough to have any more visitors.” They all stared back at him, shock-faced. As if on cue, the women near the gate reached for their little books of psalms, their lips already twitching in prayer. “Don’t worry,” Isaac rushed on. “From now on, you can give me your questions and I’ll pass them on to the rebbe. Plain and simple.”

“Not so plain, not so simple,” shouted the old lady. “What about my food delivery?”

Every Wednesday, the rebbe’s wife arranged for boxes of food to be delivered to the poor. “Mrs. Klopper, didn’t you get your food delivery?” he asked, solicitously bending his tall, lean frame toward the old woman. “It was sent to you yesterday. One of the volunteers delivered it.”

“It wasn’t the rebbe who brought it,” she said in a voice that mingled grief and blame.

“Mrs. Klopper, I promise you. It’s the same potato kugel and chicken soup. Same gefilte fish and cholent stew that gets delivered every week. No better, no worse. A kugel is a kugel is a kugel.” As he spoke, he felt a low inflammation, an itch, building in his scalp.

“Yes, but when the rebbe used to come, he washed my floors, too. Better than anyone.”

Washing floors? And what else was the frail rebbe doing against the doctor’s orders? “Don’t worry,” he said to the old woman. “I will contact the Daughters of Rebecca Kindness Hotline. Someone will be found.”

But now the saxophonist was beseeching him, “Can’t I come in? The rebbe loves to hear me play for him. Can’t you make an exception?”

Isaac sorrowfully regarded the Jesus look-alike in his fringed vest. “Forgive me, no, but I’ll tell you what.” He motioned with his forefinger, and the man, shlepping his saxophone, followed him off the stone plaza to a more secluded dirt area that skirted the rebbe’s cottage. The scent of chicken soup hit Isaac’s nostrils. Once a day, the rebbe’s wife made a huge potful. Maybe later he would take a bowl for himself. He pointed to a shuttered window. “The rebbe’s bedroom,” he told the musician.
“You can play a little
niggun
for him here.”

And the saxophonist was appeased.

With a pad in hand, Isaac went from person to person, listening to and writing down everyone’s troubles while the saxophonist softly played, “
Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn
.”

An hour later, when the rebbe woke up from his nap, Isaac approached him, pad in hand. Isaac relayed the questions and scribbled down answers. But what to do about two brides in two different neighborhoods of Jerusalem who dreamed the same dream, that they should call off their weddings? What did the rebbe advise here? One the rebbe encouraged to go ahead with the wedding, the other he told to cancel without ever looking back.

Midday, a scent of fresh cilantro wafted through the courtyard. Mazal the beggar was packing fried eggplant, slices of hard-boiled egg, and cilantro into a fresh pita. Next she drizzled mango sauce on top, and Isaac watched, compelled, as her ravaged, yellowed teeth dug into the pita.

And what if someone brought a three-course meal to the courtyard? Should he permit this, too? He shrugged. Some even came with their laundry to fold while they waited. In fact, there near the rosemary bushes he saw a lady sorting socks. Well, he supposed people couldn’t recite psalms all day while they waited.

He extracted a comically sinister Haman mask and a sheet of newspaper caught in a bush. The mask, he tucked under his arm. He glanced down at the newspaper and read: “If Labor wins the upcoming election, there goes the Temple Mount.” He clopped his forehead. What fool of a political party would give back the holy Temple Mount? It was the heart of the Jewish people! His eczematic elbow started to spark and flare. Not so fast, he muttered, scratching hard at it. Surely God had some say in the matter.

Both the mask and the newspaper went into the garbage. Ach, the whole country was a mess, and he stooped to pick up a cellophane flap moving fitfully around the courtyard.

More people came. Homemakers, unemployed Israelis, yeshiva students, a concert pianist who hiccupped excessively and couldn’t play anymore, a couple from Uruguay—a lichen expert and a botanist—with marriage problems, two obese quarreling neighbors. Isaac explained to disgruntled customers that the protocol had changed, that now everyone had to go through him to talk to the rebbe. Their distress was huge. He
couldn’t blame them. He was used to escorting confused, sad, incensed, or scared people into the cottage, one by one, and then watching them emerge from the rebbe’s studio ten, fifteen, twenty minutes later with faces looking like some freshly peeled hard-boiled egg. Clean. Clarified, somehow. And now, all they were getting was a few words from the rebbe read out loud from the assistant’s notepad? So he commiserated, he definitely did.

Toward the end of the day, just as he was about to rush off to his prayers across the street, he heard the
vroom-vroom
sound of a motorcycle. A tall young woman dismounted from a scooter parked on Ninveh Street. She unsnapped her helmet to reveal a fat red braid resting on each shoulder.

She walked toward him in long strides, her tiered peasant skirt swishing, her white helmet bouncing against her thigh. A
ba’al teshuva
, he thought. Someone so new to the ways of the Torah Isaac could almost reach over and pull off the tag. He could tell her newcomer status by her clothes, sad to say. A mixture of the Salvation Army and Fifth Avenue. Ankle-length skirt and baggy top thrown together with fine leather boots and some gauzy neck scarf no doubt dating from her pre-religious days. Frumpy and avante garde. And definitely American.

She gave a little hoot to the tabby nicknamed Gilgul, or Reincarnation, by the regulars. Then she stared boldly at Isaac through large green eyes. “Do you remember me?” she asked, her accent from somewhere in the Northeast, though not New York.

“Forgive me, no.” It was hard to keep track of everybody. “Uh, what’s your name?” He scratched his neck where a patch of psoriasis had made a recent appearance.

“Tamar.” She bent and gathered Gilgul in her arms. “I came here more than forty days ago. We spoke. You don’t remember?” Her tanned, freckled cheeks blushed ever so slightly.

“Please. Refresh me,” he said gently.

“I told you about my friend who did that
segulah
thing—she went to the Western Wall and prayed there for forty days?—and then she met this amazing guy on a setup. Her
basherte
, her honest-to-goodness soul mate. Now they’re engaged.”

Ah, yes. A
segulah
. Everybody and her friend wanting a spiritual charm to bring on heavenly assistance. Next thing you know, the young
women would come flocking to the rebbes from all corners. The young men would ignore their Torah studies and come, too, hoping to put an end to their dating woes. Isaac didn’t deny a
segulah
’s special power, but such quick remedies to people’s problems didn’t appeal to him. They led to exaggerated expectations with minimal labor. But there was no stopping them. That’s what people wanted. Microwave pizza, microwave marriage, microwave God.

“That’s nice,” he said out loud. “Mazal tov for your friend.”

“Then you told me to do the forty-day
segulah
at the wall. You—”

“I did what?” He drew back skeptically. Why would he advise that? Then, in a flash, the whole conversation returned to him. Tamar. The young lady on a motorcycle. No, a scooter. She wanted to get married, to meet a Torah scholar, like all the girls wanted. He had suggested a matchmaker to help her, but she had scorned the idea, as if being practical-minded in Jerusalem were some kind of sin. “I didn’t suggest anything,” Isaac insisted. “It was you who asked for one of these”—he cast his eyes heavenward with a resigned look—“charms, the same one as your friend, I forget her name. The rebbe said, fine, go ahead, pray forty days at the Kotel, he wouldn’t stop you.”

“Whatever.” She airily flipped her wrist. “The point is, I did it, I prayed forty days at the wall. Today, I finally completed the circuit. D Day, right? Deliverance? And guess what happened?” She let a pause sink in. “I got fired from my job as a translator. The first decent job I ever had in this country.” At this, even the cat in her arms lifted its head to accuse him with slitted yellow eyes.

Isaac sneezed. “That’s terrible. I’m really sorry. Now you need a husband and a job, too.” He blew his nose with regret.

“You don’t understand.” She took a step closer. The freckles on her cheeks stood out vividly. “I prayed and prayed. I came in the rain, I came late at night and early in the morning. I even came when I had strep throat. And how did God answer me? By sacking me. So why, I ask you, did you push this
segulah
?”

Isaac’s hands splayed outward defensively. “I keep telling you I didn’t. There were never any promises. You don’t remember?”

Tamar closed her eyes, as if painfully calling forth the past. She stroked Gilgul down to the tip of his striped orange tail. Finally, she nodded, a little.

“If you think God is a pinball machine”—he smacked his fist into his open palm and his arm took off for the sky—“you pull the lever, God lights up, the bells ring, then I can’t help you. I can’t make such promises on God’s behalf, neither can the rebbe.” He was fed up with magical thinking. It was downright idolatrous.

She stared up at his still upright arm, and he let his arm drop. Then she looked down at her hands, a sheepish look playing out on her face. “I’m sorry.”

His chest contracted with pity. “Are you sorry you went to the wall?” he asked quietly. He peered at her over the shield of his glasses.

Her face seemed to soften. “I might have saved myself a trip when I had strep, but no, I’m not sorry I went.”

He straightened and smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. Who could ever regret prayer? Though frankly”—he adjusted the brim on his hat—“I’m surprised the
segulah
didn’t work.”

She looked startled. “Nope,” she said. “It definitely didn’t work. I am without a man.” She smiled a crooked little smile that did more to tug at him than all her complaints.

“Let me ask what the rebbe thinks. Though he may be sleeping now.”

She surprised him with, “What do
you
think?” and she ruffled Gilgul’s fur until he rumbled and purred.

“All right then.” He stopped, momentarily distracted by one of her braids that had partly unraveled.
Maybe not such a fresh
ba’al teshuva, went through his mind. Instead, he gave her three years. “Tell me. Did you pray just for yourself and for one thing, or did you include others, too?”

“Why, I—” She stopped. She eased Gilgul to the courtyard stones, her peasant skirt draping the ground. “Yes. I did. I prayed for the whole darn world. Wasn’t I supposed to?”

“No,” he said firmly. “Just for yourself.”

“Huh. You mean I’d have to do it another forty days? During Pesach and all?”

“You don’t have to do anything.” He shrugged. “But if you do go, nu … do it right. Pray for one thing.” Again he gazed at her over his glasses. “Just you.”

“Hey,”—her head tilted—“you mean I should be selfish?”

He chuckled. “Be focused. Direct all your thoughts to one point. Let
the prayers take effect. Let them change you into a new person, Tamar. Just like Moses, after forty days of talking to God on Sinai, became a new being.” The tabby crept past and squeezed between his legs.

Tamar stared at him, squinty-eyed. “You make the
segulah
sound as though it has a rationale.”

“Call it a
segulah
, call it whatever you like. The whole point of a
segulah
is to get you to pray harder and better. Prayer is prayer.”

Her mind seemed hard at work, her eyes moving in different directions. Then she nodded firmly. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

He wanted to tell her—ditch the hippie-dippie look, stop riding that foolish scooter (a Vespa?), get with the Jerusalem protocol. Instead, he scribbled something on a notepad. “About that job. Here.” He tore off a sheet of paper. “Call this yeshiva. Gates of Wisdom. I know a bookkeeper there. They’re looking for a secretary.” It was a school for
ba’al teshuva
men. He even knew a young man there, a Joshua from California, who sometimes came to the courtyard seeking red strings blessed by the rebbe. (Silly movie star fad.) Who knew? Maybe this was God’s answer. He could already see her red braids, his blond tints, mingled in their children’s hair. “Can you type and file, that kind of thing?”

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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