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Authors: Ruchama King Feuerman

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

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (5 page)

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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“ ‘Who will ascend the mountain of God?’ asks King David the psalmist.” An Israeli tour guide was speaking in English to a group of tourists looking up at the magnificent dome of the Golden Lady. “ ‘… those who have clean hands and a pure heart.’ ” Mounds of curly hair sprouted from the tour guide’s head. He always began his talk with that same line, Mustafa remembered. “Here stood the ancient Jewish Temple that was destroyed more than two thousand years ago. The outer western wall is all that remains from the temple. Who knows the many names this wall goes by?”

“The Western Wall,” promptly answered a fat Jew in baggy shorts to the knee.

“The Kotel!” called out a tall woman in a straw hat who got a nod from the guide for giving the wall its Hebrew name, but then the group fell silent, out of names.

“No more?” He wagged a finger. “You haven’t been listening well. The Wailing Wall! Didn’t you see all those Hassidics crying down there?” He mimed tears streaming down his tanned cheeks.

The tourists cast sheepish looks at one another.

“And there’s one more name.” The guide let a pause fall. “The Waiting Wall,” he said with a flourish. “It’s been waiting the past two thousand years to be rebuilt. Or maybe,” he said with a certain slyness, “because it’s been waiting centuries for you and you and you”—his finger swung from person to person—“to leave your fancy homes in Scarsdale and Paris to come pray at her side!” He took a drink from his army canteen. “After all, it’s considered the holiest, most preferred spot to pray in the world.”

Mustafa bent down and picked off a web of gum pasted on his shoe and shook his head. How angry his boss would be to find gum.

“This rock is the place where Jewish tradition says that Abraham brought Isaac and prepared to sacrifice him, to demonstrate his devotion to God,” the guide said, brushing a dark lock of hair off his forehead. “When an angel of God stopped him, Abraham took a ram caught in the bushes and sacrificed it instead.”

An old woman with binoculars raised an arm. “Don’t the Muslims
have the same tradition, but they say it was Ishmael who was brought to be sacrificed and not Isaac?”

The Israeli guide took another slug from his canteen. “Yes, that’s true.” He wiped his lips against his upper arm. “But one difference: in the Muslim version, it takes place in Mecca and they wing their way back here.” His hand looped in and out, showing a complicated journey. “Goes to show you, a good story makes the rounds among the religions.” He smirked, and the crowd nodded along with him and exchanged mocking looks. “Now drink, drink! You don’t want to get dehydrated up here.”

Mustafa watched as they traipsed after the guide into the Golden Lady shrine. He lunged at a paper bag stirred by a rare breeze and stashed it into his rucksack.
Ya’allah
, that crazy Israeli didn’t know anything about the Koran and probably nothing about his own Torah, either.
Yahudi majnoon!
Another crazy Jew. He spat into his rucksack—or tried to. It took effort to gather the saliva in his twisted throat.

Now it was time to clean the washing fountain between the Golden Lady and the Gray Lady mosque. A foolish woman rinsed her feet under a spigot for everyone to see, and he pointed her south, toward the women’s mosque. He hardly ever spoke to women, except now and then to his sisters and his mother, and when he was a boy, to the Christian woman. He missed the good lady. She was clean and beautiful, like the mother of Isa. Maryam. Whenever she had taken him to church, he would tilt his head back and stare up at the great lady, Mother Maryam with her smooth cheeks and gentle, sad mouth. He would say, “Do not cry, oh lady with cheeks like white apples. I would gladly sweep for you until the end of my days.”

One day when he was fourteen, the Christian lady told him she had an illness and had to go back to England. She left so fast, she didn’t have time to give her address. Maybe the priest had said to her, “Waste no more time with this rude Muslim boy.” Maybe Mustafa had asked a bad question, but was it so bad to ask how Allah had put the seed into Mother Maryam to make the baby Isa? When Mustafa returned to the church, without the Christian lady but with more questions, the priest had shouted, “Leave here!” So he got out and never came back. The Christian lady must have died, he decided, because he never saw her again. Strangely, her name had faded in his mind. Till this day he thought of her as Maryam.

He sprayed down every stoop that surrounded the El Kas washing fountain and even the base. He scrubbed the stone floor and scratched with his nail at the neglected corners. Holding a blue bottle of cleanser, he squirted fluid on the fancy green fence that circled the fountain.

He stepped back a moment to appraise his work and saw Sheikh Tawil passing under the Gate of Four Arches. The sheikh tapped a cane in front of him as he carefully climbed down the stairs.
Tock, tock
. “Very nice, Mustafa,” said the sheikh, poking the fence with his cane.

It was true. Each green spoke and swirl stood out sharp in the sun, and the whole fence shone like a bracelet of filigree. Mustafa smiled with happiness. Usually the Waqf officials said nothing about his work, and never his name.

The sheikh pushed his cane into the ground to leverage the steps. Mustafa clambered after him, emboldened by his boss’s good compliment. “Please, honored sheikh, I have a question for you. About the Koran.”

The sheikh patted his wispy gray beard. “Yes, what’s your question.”

“Ah.” Mustafa stopped, momentarily arrested by the sheikh’s dark, sleek cane. “Forgive me, I want to know. Isn’t it a pity that we Muslims don’t have any priests?”

“On the contrary,” said the sheikh. “We don’t need any priests.” He grasped his cane and hitched up his robe a bit with his free hand. “Now carry on.” Away he went.
Tock, tock, tock
.

Too bad, Mustafa thought. A Muslim kohein would have been nice.

Thoughts of the tall rabbi stirred within him as he vacuumed the rugs inside the Golden Lady. He hadn’t properly thanked the
yahudi
. The Jew should know that an Arab never took without giving something in return. “Rabbi Isaac,” he said out loud, his voice getting sucked into the shriek of the whirring vacuum. “Look what I brought you.” He would take a simple but nice thing to show he was no beggar.

At dawn he walked down Tariq el-Wad Street, turned at Bab al-Hadid. The peddlers were laying out their wares. Mustafa carefully examined sunglasses, hanging rugs, brass smoke pipes, fancy radios, copper pots, many sets of backgammon, and soccer balls, the same balls the young boys kicked at the school on the Noble Sanctuary. Nothing seemed right for
the Jew. Ah well. He stumbled on, closer to the Jewish Quarter, and walked along David Street. Nothing there, either.

From the minarets he heard the cry, “Prayer is better than sleep.” The
fajr
prayer began and so had work. Another day at the Noble Sanctuary.

Midmorning, he saw Sheikh Tawil lifting his robes as he passed gray rubble and came toward him. “Go to the construction site at Solomon’s Stables,” the Waqf official instructed. He pointed with his black cane and his jowls jiggled with importance. Mustafa had seen the trucks and bulldozers come and go all morning as they prepared the area for the Marwani Mosque. It was to be the largest mosque in Palestine.

He walked toward the southeast corner, passed the Al-Aqsa mosque, and stepped over and around large metal beams and tiles stacked haphazardly. A dump truck let him know he had arrived at Solomon’s Stables. A chain of workers stood on steps leading up from Solomon’s Stables, and a pail filled with debris passed from hand to hand until it reached the top stair. Mustafa took his place at the highest step, his head already turned to see the pail, his hands ready to grab it. The other workers didn’t look at him, or if they did, their eyes flicked away. Still, the hands touched, the pail moved quickly, another took its place, and some of the men chanted a tune,
“Hela hob, Hela hob, Hela hob.”

Mustafa, at the top of the chain, scrambled to empty the pail into the dump truck. Sweat pooled around his neck. He reached for the next pail and it clanked against a worker’s hand. Mustafa clutched his cheeks. “
Laa
. Many sorries!” he sang out. The man growled,
“Dirbalak.”
Careful. Mustafa nodded. A worker’s hands were his life. The man grunted,
“Moak
,” and Mustafa stared down at his shoes.

He listened to the
chink-chink
of shovel hitting stone, the pickax breaking rock apart. The men had switched to chanting,
“Sali ala al-nabi, Sali ala al-nabi
,” and he joined the men in asking for the prophet’s assistance in their work. He poured out the debris, and as the small rocks and dust rained down, he saw a jug spout and what looked to be a handle. It was just garbage lying there. Soon the truck would dump all the debris outside the Wadi Jehinun. Still, he thought the Jew might like it as a curiosity, and he tucked the pieces into his baggy pants pocket. He would bring them to Rabbi Isaac. A little trinket from the Noble Sanctuary. A gift from the Haram.

CHAPTER FOUR

Isaac had a courtyard busybody to thank for this blind date. A ficus tree partly shielded him as he waited outside the café in the King David hotel lobby for Mrs. Edelman to appear. Well, at least it wasn’t totally blind. The widow came twice a month to the courtyard with folded squares of paper on which she had written her notes, questions for Rebbe Yehudah. That made her a courtyard regular.

Waiters dressed in black and white brushed past Isaac, one hoisting a steaming bowl of potato and leek soup. It smelled delicious. Should he order a bowl for himself, he thought, even as he wondered what on earth had possessed him to take a blind date to this fancy schmancy café.

Just then Mrs. Edelman waved her fingertips at him from across a sea of glass coffee tables and puffy chairs, and he lifted his arm in return, bringing down a rainstorm of ficus leaves. She walked toward him serenely, looking angelic in the creamy lights of the hotel lobby. She had changed from the pageboy wig she usually wore to something a little longer, fuller, and feathered at the side. Rather daring for the proper widow. The thought that Mrs. Edelman (he couldn’t even think of using her first name) might have chosen her fancy Shabbos wig for this
shidduch
, this very blind date, made him blush.

He emerged from behind the ficus tree. “Shall we have something to eat?” He gestured toward the café, while not quite looking at her. Suddenly, he felt naked without the courtyard.

“How about just sitting in the lobby,” she offered, smoothing back a feathery brown strand of wig. “I’m not particularly hungry.”

He coughed his assent, though he pondered her meaning. Maybe she, too, didn’t have high hopes for this evening and didn’t want to wait around for their order if things went poorly. Or perhaps, he thought more
charitably, she was similar to many holy Jerusalem women who took compassion on a Jewish man’s wallet.

She sat in a beige-and-burgundy-striped easy chair next to a lamp, and he stood, undecided. Should he sit facing her three feet away on the sofa? Too formal, he thought, too much like an interview. But to sit in the easy chair kitty-corner to her seat struck him as unbearably intimate. He found himself backing his way toward the sofa—after all, weren’t these blind dates interviews in a sense, packed as they were with questions designed to ferret out who was marriage-worthy and who should be set aside?—and he sat down heavily, bumping his knee against the glass coffee table.

Mrs. Edelman, in her simple navy skirt and matching jacket, crisp white collar, and matching navy pumps, looked like a perfectly wrapped box, all neat corners and angles. Nice-looking and a fine lady, he thought. Most likely in her upper-thirties. In short, appropriate for him. He frowned at a loose thread dangling from his charcoal suit sleeve. “So how long have you been coming to the courtyard?” he began, discreetly snapping off the black string. Better if he took charge with the questions. In this way, he could avoid the unwanted ones.

“Oh, for ages,” she said. “Rebbe Yehudah has been just wonderful to my family, especially since … you know, my husband passed away,” she murmured. “So helpful.”

Helpful
. He didn’t know why, but the word irked him, as if the rebbe were no more than a social worker. “Do you have any unusual story that you can tell me?” he asked her. “Something special about the rebbe?” He fingered the dark hairs above his lip. The rest of his beard was an undecided mix of gray and brown, but this last dark bit tended to remind him he still had some youth left. Forty-one wasn’t so old.

“Unusual?” She frowned. “A story? How exactly do you mean?”

“I don’t know, anything out of the ordinary he said or did.” Any tidbit about the rebbe was dear to him.

“Hmm.” She crossed her legs tightly at the ankles. “All I can think of is, once I had a terrible cold. I could barely breathe, but I didn’t want to break my appointment with Rebbe Yehudah. The strange thing is, after I spoke to the rebbe, my nose”—she touched it with a light hand—“well, I could breathe again. Not that I believe in that voodoo stuff,” she said with
a deep roll of her eyes and dismissive shake of her fluffy wig.

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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