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 (7 page)

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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“Here,” he said to the lank-haired girl, “have a banana.” He kept one in a paper bag, reserved for her.

“I’m not hungry.” She brushed her limp brown hair off her cheeks, and her pinched hands and the boniness of her wrists made him avert his eyes.

“Please eat it,” he entreated her.

She rolled her blue eyes. “Why can’t the rebbe watch me eat it like he usually does?” Dalya was the only courtyard person who regularly got allowed inside since the doctor’s no-visitors edict. Usually she came in the morning when the rebbe was awake.

“Dalya, Dalya, dear girl. The rebbe’s sleeping this very moment. He needs his rest. Please, I beg you—eat!”

She rolled her eyes again as she grabbed the fruit and shoved it into her backpack.

Oh, for goodness sake. He watched her open the iron gate. She wouldn’t eat it on her own in a million years. But how could he wake the rebbe?

Later in the day, when the rebbe was up and about, Isaac entered his study. The window shutters were closed, and a single lamp with a filigreed base let off a small halo of light. Books lined the shelves, wall to wall, as far as the eye could see, books that told the reader how to live as a human being and as a Jew. They were old, they were new, they were written in English, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish.

“So, what do I tell the young man who has given up, thinks he’ll never get married?” Isaac gazed down at Rebbe Yehudah who lay half-propped on a couch fitted with a sheet, his fluffy white beard fanned out on his upper chest.

The rebbe emitted a splintery cough. “Tell him to keep talking to girls,” he said, as Isaac patted his back to bring up the phlegm. “If he keeps doing that, he will get married.”

Isaac nodded and scribbled a note. Truthfully, that’s all the fellow needed, the lightest hand of encouragement. “What about the woman who is praying for her grandchild to die?” He looked up from his notepad. “The baby was born with fingers missing.”

The rebbe closed his eyes. “Such prayers are automatically disqualified in heaven. Give me both their names. I will pray for them.”

“But … why the grandmother? Why does she need your prayers?”

The rebbe shrugged his thin shoulders. “She must be suffering, too.”

“But what do I tell her?” he said, his pen hovering above the pad.

Rebbe Yehudah looked puzzled. “You cry with her,” he said.

Here, Isaac set down the notepad and checked the rebbe’s pillow for
dampness. Sometimes the rebbe got carried away praying so hard for everyone that his pillow got soaked with tears. Today—Isaac’s fingers probed discreetly—no need to change the pillow case, at least not yet.

“I forgot. Dalya didn’t eat her banana,” he said, referring to the teen with the eating disorder. “She said she won’t eat the banana unless you sit with her. But you were sleeping.”

The rebbe pressed a shaky hand against his narrow chest. “Why didn’t you get me up?” Isaac didn’t answer. “Surely you recognize a starving child when you see one,” the rebbe said. “Let her come in next time. Next time,” he said, a trenchant look in his deep-set silvery eye, “wake me.”

Isaac bowed his head, chastened, and looked down at his hands.

“Don’t feel so bad, Isaac.” The rebbe gently touched his wrist. “You’re usually right.”

Isaac took a deep breath. “Why did you choose me?” he asked.

“Choose you?”

“To be your assistant.”

Rebbe Yehudah shrugged. “You have a good heart and a good head. You know how to look at people.” He let out an explosive cough, and his beard hairs quivered. When Isaac leaned over, about to give another gentle potch to his upper back, Rebbe Yehudah raised a hand: Fine, fine. Just then, his eyes got alert, as if listening out for a baby crying. The rebbe sat up.

Isaac was hovering at his side. “What is it, Rebbe?”

Rebbe Yehudah struggled to his feet and made his way to the door. “The toilet,” he said and coughed a little. “It’s making that sound again.”

“Rebbe!” Isaac remonstrated him. “You rest! Doctor’s orders. I’ll get the plunger.”

But Rebbe Yehudah said, “Don’t take my mitzvah away,” and he insisted on working the plunger himself.

Ten minutes later, the rebbe was settled back on the arm of couch, his freshly washed fingers emitting a liquid soap scent.

A thought then struck Isaac. “What do I do about Mazal’s wind passing?”

Rebbe Yehudah’s forehead crinkled a little. “Wind passing?”

“She farts,” Isaac said shortly. “All the time, all over the place, even while I’m talking to her.”

“Ah, yes. Passing wind, I understand.” Rebbe Yehudah nodded his head, his deep-set eyes half-closed in contemplation. “Do they smell very foul?”

This gave Isaac pause. “Not especially foul, now that you mention it.”

“Even still, it bothers you terribly. You feel as if she’s passing wind on you, in particular?”

Isaac nodded vehemently.

“It’s an unfortunate thing, but there’s not much one can do,” the rebbe said. “Maybe you want to ask yourself why it bothers you so much.”

Isaac started. Did he have to provide a reason? “It’s unseemly,” he said feebly. “It disturbs the others.”

“Hmm.” His eyes reflected. “Why not tell her you’ve noticed how she fills the courtyard with the most delightful scent and ask her what perfume she wears?” The rebbe nodded again. “I think this will help.”

Before Isaac could ponder if the rebbe was making a joke, the rounded form of the rebbetzin entered the room with a bowl of noodles and vegetable broth. A plume of steam pinked her white cheeks and made her eyes tear. Rebbe Yehudah lifted his head and smiled—no, grinned at his wife—and his recessed eyes seemed to leap forward in their sockets in welcome. Isaac stood flat against the wall, as if caught in the crosscurrents of an electric field. Such a smile could be felt in the space between them. He had to admit, one of the job perks was watching the elderly couple. It reminded him of a Talmudic tale of a yeshiva student who followed his rabbi all day long, scrutinizing him as he prayed, ate, and studied. Once, the student even entered the scholar’s bedroom at night and hid under the bed to see what he could see. When the ancient scholar peeked under his bed and found his student staring back at him, the boy said, “This, too, is Torah and I have come to learn.” Not that Isaac would ever carry things that far.

But what was this, a scuffle at the door? A black-frocked Hassid barreled into the rebbe’s study. The rebbetzin jerked back and the soup sloshed a little. The three stared at the fleshy-cheeked man. “I don’t have enough money!” he shouted. “I can’t make ends meet. Bless me. I need a miracle”—he smacked his meaty hand—“right now!”

Isaac strode toward the Hassid. “Maybe you are unaware,” he said firmly, “but this is a private home. And the rebbe is sick. I’m sorry, but I
have to ask you to leave.” He pointed at the door.

The rebbe held up a veiny hand like a stop sign. Then he propped himself up by degrees. “Ahem. Wait a minute. What’s your name?”

“Moish,” said the Hassid in a truculent tone.

“Ah, Moish.” The rebbe, with effort, leaned on a flinty elbow. “So it’s a miracle you want?” Moish nodded his chin, up and down. “Can’t help you, Moish. Miracles tire out an old man like me.” The rebbe laughed softly to himself and then groaned a little. “Anyway, for me, life after the camps is miracle enough.”

Moish raised his large head and looked at him through woebegone eyes. “But you’re a kabbalist …” he trailed off.

“Come here, Moish.” The rebbe beckoned him. “Closer.”

And Isaac wondered, as he did each time, what the rebbe would say to yet another Yid with his own peckel of sorrow.

“So tell me, what exactly do you do for a living?” the rebbe asked.

“I’m a computer programmer,” Moish said in a begrudging voice.

“How much do you make?”

The Hassid told him.

“That’s a good salary for a computer programmer. I don’t think you could get more than that.”

“But it’s not enough,” Moish said in a low voice. “I have seven children.”

“So, what kind of blessing could I possibly give you,” the rebbe reasoned. “Should I bless you that your boss should go crazy and double your salary? Is that fair to him?”

“No,” he mumbled, “I guess not.”

“You know who miracles happen to?” The rebbe’s eyes seemed to wink and grin. “Realists. Come up with a business plan. An idea. Lay the groundwork. Then come and I’ll be happy to give you a blessing for success.”

Moish the Hassid mulled this, pulling a little on his hairy lower lip. “That’s what my wife has been saying all along. Only people in business make real money, she says. And you know, I do have a certain business idea.”

Moish kissed the rebbe’s hand and left.

Isaac stared after him. “How do you do it, Rebbe? Such simple advice, but did you see his face when he left? He had such hope!”

“If a man can be made weak,” the rebbe said, “a man can be made strong.”

All
men? Isaac wondered. But said nothing.

CHAPTER FIVE

Mustafa fingered the trinkets in his pocket. A warm April breeze blew in the courtyard, making the tips of the
yahudi
men’s beards and the women’s long skirts stir in the wind. And he wondered for the fifth time why he had returned. Why should he bring the Jew a gift? He had a feeling it would lead to no good. But what was that beautiful smell coming from the cottage windows? An aroma from paradise. “Here,” he said to the rabbi when he passed by. He thrust his gift at the
yahudi
. “Take this. I brought it for you.”

“Me?” Rabbi Isaac asked. “Why?”

Mustafa’s arm remained outstretched and he proudly refused to explain. “It’s from the Haram al Sharif,” he said. The Jew looked confused. “The Noble Sanctuary,” he explained. Finally he threw in, “The Temple Mount.”

The rabbi’s hands jumped as he opened the pouch. Mustafa watched how he stared at the spout and touched the tip tenderly. The rabbi put the jug handle next to his cheek. “Extraordinary. So beautiful,” he said.

Mustafa stared at the spout and handle. “Why so beautiful?”

“Come, Mustafa.” The rabbi beckoned him closer. “This spout is dirty, true. Nothing special to look at, right? A piece of garbage. But don’t you wonder who might have used it, for what purpose, and how long ago? No one sees its beauty, its value.” He wiped away a trickle of sweat before it disappeared into his speckled beard. “No one knows how to look anymore, how to see with good eyes.”

Mustafa breathed deeply. A tiny pain throbbed under his rib, like a pointed jewel pressing there.
No one knew how to look anymore
. The truth of these words made him go still inside. Then he shook off these words with an angry quiver of his head. “Well, Rabbi Isaac, does anyone
see my village? It’s a poor village, you know. We don’t have things like the Jews have.”

The rabbi’s eyes blinked rapidly. “I didn’t expect this question, though it’s a fair one.” He nodded. “It’s sad, you’re right. We don’t see each other, we really don’t see each other at all.”

This made Mustafa only repeat more loudly, “Look at your village and look at mine. We have so little.” In this country, the Arabs were the mules and horses, and the Jews held the reins. His brother Tariq had told him that. He rubbed the knobs in his neck, hard and stubborn as stone.

“It is both sides who don’t see,” the rabbi said, turning the spout in his hands, “not just one. If the people in your village don’t pay taxes, and the great majority of Arab councils refuses to collect them, then they’re not seeing the government of Israel, are they?” The rabbi’s pale eyes came closer to him. “Every year the state has to bail out a number of Arab towns and villages because they don’t pay taxes. They get the largest grants, I hear, more than any other group in the country. And they don’t serve in the army, either.”

Here, Mustafa fell silent and wedged the toe of his shoe into the dirt. He mumbled, “We are poor, our people are the poorest in the land. It’s not right.”

The Jew shook his head. “No, it’s not right. But look around you, Mustafa. In this neighborhood, you’ll find six or seven children in one bedroom. These people, the
haredi
, you know, like me”—he touched the top of his head—“with the black hats? They are like your people. They both have lots of children. And both groups remain poor. It’s a decision.”

“An Arab’s hard life can’t be compared to a Jew’s!” he cried out. To be poor was a decision? He had never heard such a thing!
Yahudi majnoon
. Crazy Jews.

The rabbi said, “Do you have children to marry off, Mustafa? We have a free-loan society. You are welcome to borrow some money.”

He shoved his hands into his baggy pants pockets. “No, that’s not why I came. I don’t want to borrow money. Anyway,” he added, “I’m not married.”

“Neither am I.”

They looked at each other and a reluctant smile formed on Mustafa’s lips. Maybe he and the Jew were more the same than not. “Tell me,” he
asked. “Is a kohein obligated to marry?” As for himself, he had no wish to get married, had no impulse or desire toward any woman—and thanks be to Allah, not toward any man, child, or beast. He had been this way for as long as he could remember.

The rabbi chewed the stem of his glasses for a moment. “Well, yes,” he said, “if the kohein wanted to serve in the temple, he had to be married.”

“Oh.” Crestfallen, Mustafa kicked gently at the roots of the olive tree. Well, what did it matter?

Rabbi Isaac gave him a funny look. “You’re not thinking of becoming a Jew, are you?” he asked. “Islam is a fine religion, you know.”

Laa!
Mustafa touched his cheeks, as if singed. “No, no, never!” he said. “I just wanted to know more about the kohein. That’s all, nothing else.” He cut the air sharply with his hand, as if to end the discussion.

The rabbi wrapped the spout and jug handle in a handkerchief, kissed it, and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “Thank you, Mustafa, for these precious items. If you find anymore on our holy mountain, save them, protect them.”

Protect
, Mustafa thought. He didn’t know what the word meant. A cousin once said, “Your mother didn’t protect you. She left you alone in the tub when you were an infant. Twice you nearly drowned. Luckily your father saved you.” It was not once his father had saved him, and not a few times either, but many times.

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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