Read In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist Online

Authors: Ruchama King Feuerman

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

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BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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He said out loud, “You know, when I ask my mother when I can visit, she tells me it’s not a good day or it’s raining too hard or she has a backache. For many years I haven’t stepped into the village, though she likes the presents I send—the Wella Balsalm shampoo, American toothpaste, things like that. Whenever I broke or spilt something, she said, ‘Expect seven misfortunes from the cripple and forty-two from the one-eyed man’ or some other proverb, though she knows I’m not a cripple. And not one-eyed, either.” Here, he rubbed one eye hard with the back of his wrist. “Once, she cursed me. She said I made my father ill, that I brought misfortune on the family.” But it wasn’t true. His father would play backgammon after work with the other men. He would take Mustafa with him—this was when he was seven or eight and still couldn’t speak and people looked at him like he was dust or maybe a monster—but his father brought him and let him throw the dice, too:
Here, Mustafa, you bring me luck
.

The rabbi stared. “Your mother said you bring misfortune?”

“Yes. Instead of honor, she said I bring humiliation on the family. Everything I do is a humiliation. Sometimes I think because I live, that, too, is a humiliation.”

Rabbi Isaac winced. “Terrible.” He fell silent. Then he asked, “Does she have other children who can take care of her?”

“Yes, my brothers and sisters all take turns. She’s between seventy and eighty.”

“Is your father still alive?”

“No. My father was good to me. He made sure I had proper shoes, with no holes. Once, he took me on a picnic.”

“All by yourself? That’s nice,” the rabbi remarked.

“No, with the whole family. Usually I stayed behind. My mother thought if others saw me, no one would want to marry my brothers and sisters. But this time, my father said no, the boy comes with us. In the end, they all married but not me.”

The rabbi massaged his eyes behind his glasses. “Wait a minute,” he said, and went into the cottage. Mustafa sat. A woman with a red kerchief tied under her chin sat next to him on the bench. Her stomach stuck out like a pregnant woman’s, but she looked too old to be carrying a baby. Mustafa was glad to not sit alone, but then the woman gave him a harsh look and raised one shoulder nearly up to her ear and turned, as though a wall now stood between them. “
Tzedakah, tzedakah
,” she rasped in a low, guttural voice as she shook a dented can.

Oh, a beggar, he thought. The swish of the can, the clattering of the coins, the woman’s chanting all filled his brain, and he said out loud,
“Tzedakkah
,” just because he liked how the word sat on his tongue and how it sounded like the Arabic word for charity—
sadaqah
. The woman stopped rattling the can. She looked at him through furious dark slits, her can raised. Mustafa crouched, shielding his face with his arm. He heard the slam of the door and the shuffle of feet, and glimpsed Rabbi Isaac approaching. He pried the woman’s can away. “Mazal, if you ever …” the rabbi said in an angry voice.

“I wasn’t going to touch him,” she bleated, turning toward Mustafa. “Even though he was sitting in my place and trying to steal my customers,” she said, pouring her hot angry breath over the custodian.
“He needs to know who’s the boss here.”

“Perhaps you should take note who the boss is,” Rabbi Isaac said, and his eyes flicked toward the tops of the trees and even higher. “I won’t let you bother my friend here, or anyone, for that matter.”

Mustafa waved a hand to dismiss the episode (but did the rabbi really call him a “friend?”), when he got distracted by the good smell coming from the cottage. What was it? Maybe the same wonderful scent from the Golden Lady shrine. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the round plastic container in the rabbi’s arms.

“Chicken soup.” The rabbi passed the container to him. “For you.”

“What about me?” demanded the beggar lady. Her black eyes flashed with hurt. “Don’t I get?”

“Do you want, Mazal?” The rabbi leaned toward her in a kind way. “Would you like soup?”

“No,” she decided, with a sharp shake of her head. “I don’t like Ashkenazi soup. No flavor.”

What the beggar had said was true, Mustafa thought, when he later sampled the soup on the bus ride home. It was not as flavorful as a good Arabic soup. Still, the warm liquid gave him a nice feeling. He smiled, remembering how Rabbi Isaac had bent toward him, like a kind father, and given him the soup like any good mother would make for her child. He wondered why the rabbi had given it to him. Was it possible the rabbi wanted him to talk bad about his own mother? The rabbi would tell others he came from a terrible home. And Mustafa had said bad things. But his mother was better than others who had
moak
children! He knew of a Bedouin family in the village who kept their crazy daughter in a cage outdoors, even in the winter. He shook his head, recalling the shrill barks that came from the girl’s mouth. His mother had never locked him up, not even once. And if she had, his father would’ve set him free.

When the bus lurched to a halt, he took another taste of the rabbi’s soup. His tongue began to remember all the soups his mother used to cook, especially the one made of green wheat—
freka
. She used to make it on special holidays. It was the most wonderful soup he ever had, and a longing thickened in his chest to return home. Back at his village, the
fruit trees—green almond, peach, and pomegranate—were just starting to show their leaves. Would he ever return to his village again? Maybe only in shrouds, he thought, and took another sip of soup.

CHAPTER SIX

The bus rattled along Jaffa Road, then King George Street. Isaac glanced at a middle-aged Ethiopian woman in an aisle seat chanting a nursery rhyme to a toddler, maybe even her grandchild. He watched the woman mime a house, then a table, then a chair with her quick brown hands. His gaze swung over to the little boy at her side who was trying to imitate her hand motions. He felt a tightening in his rib cage. He, too, would’ve liked to be playing hand games with his own child. Many men his age were in fact grandfathers. Why not himself? he thought with a stab. What if he never married? Then he shook his head, shooing away these thoughts. What-ifs and if-onlys implied God didn’t know what he was doing.

A dark-skinned man in a worker’s cap got onto the bus, his bulky yellow knapsack bobbing against his back. Isaac noticed how immediately everyone on the bus began to follow the man as he made his way toward the back. What, did they think the poor fellow was a terrorist? Like a radar going off, Isaac’s elbow began to itch. The big yellow knapsack did look out of place. A bomb could fit inside one. In fact—Isaac’s throat turned dry as smoke—hadn’t the last couple of terrorists used knapsacks? Isaac scratched harder. The air seemed to fall away around the dark-skinned man who was humming some mindless tune—and sweating, too. Isaac felt his own palms and neck go damp with sweat. It’s nothing, nothing, he tried to calm himself. A man couldn’t live this way every time he got on a bus to buy a pair of socks or fill a prescription across town, as was the case today. But he felt his stomach stitching and unstitching underneath his suit jacket as if it had a life of its own. Just when he was about to whisper something to the bus driver, the dark-skinned man lazily unzipped his knapsack and took out a miniature Talmud. He began to pore over it, rocking slightly in the aisle, his other hand adjusting his cap. The
whole bus—even the windows—let out its breath. But an old lady with a straw hat continued to watch the man with hawk eyes, as if to say,
No silly Talmud’s going to throw me off the trail!

Ach. Isaac found a tissue and mopped his neck. Too much bus drama! If only those foolish boys—and of course Peres—hadn’t rushed off to Oslo to make their deals with Arafat, he thought. Because only then the party had started—Hamas bombs exploding in post offices, cafés, movie theaters, schools, and especially buses. And still, the crazy dance of peace continued. All of which meant to him that the compulsion to make peace could be as dangerous as the compulsion to make war.

The bus driver fiddled with the radio and a song blared out, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” On either side of Isaac, passengers debated who would be the next prime minister.

The bus made a sharp turn, and he held on tightly to the pole, his other hand clutching at his hat.

“Hello!”

He turned. A tall young woman was staring at him, smiling. Was that smile intended for him? But who was she? She wore a silky scarf tied at the neck and a tailored outfit, stylish and gray. A red ponytail jutted fountainlike from the back of her head. Ah—Tamar, the
segulah
single. He watched her squeeze past a pregnant woman and come toward him. “Didn’t recognize me in my work gear, did you? Now that I’m all
fahputzied
?” she said, slightly botching the Yiddish word for spiffed up.

“Not at first,” he admitted. Today, as opposed to the other times he had seen her, she carried herself with a certain polish, even with her absurd ponytail. “So you got a job then.”

“Yes, at the very place you recommended.” She bobbed her head. “Gates of Wisdom Yeshiva. I can’t thank you enough.”

He nodded. “Glad to have helped.”

“No, I don’t think you realize.” She took a step closer, her extraordinary green eyes glowing with an extra sheen. “This isn’t just another deadend job. Do you know what this job means to me?”

He said no, coughed, and took a step back, or tried to, but there was nowhere to go. She was standing far too close to him. Young lady, he almost berated her. A little distance, please! But she was a
ba’alas teshuva
, one of the newly penitent, sweet and clueless. He felt a faint prickle at the
base of his scalp, the red heat of eczema about to break forth. Actually, there was a foot’s distance between them, but a bus could make a sharp swerve, or, or—it could stop suddenly, and the next thing you know, she’d be falling against him.
Gottenyu
. He held on more tightly to his pole for leverage.

“It’s changed my life!” Tamar burst out. “I’m much more than a secretary—practically a fund-raiser. Today I’m meeting big donors. That’s why I’m decked out like this”—she gestured toward her straight skirt—“and taking a bus, not my good old Vespa.” She grinned, then perhaps waking up to his unease, she stepped a few inches back. Isaac quietly breathed prayers of thanks. “The rabbis think I’ve really got a flair!” she went on.

Isaac beamed, both at the good news and the extra space that had opened between them. “Tremendous!” So often he heard tales of woe, but now this piece of good news acted as a bit of oxygen to the system. “It’s wonderful to do something worthwhile.” He discreetly wiped at his neck with his crumpled tissue.

Her head tilted, making her ponytail jut in the air. “Don’t you do the same?”

“Yes, I do,” he said, “but it didn’t come so fast or easy.”

She raised a pale reddish brow.

“Listen,” he said. “I’m a Lower East Side boy. I spent close to two decades selling socks, ties, shirts, and caps. I was good at it, sure, it put the
fleisch
, the meat on the table …” He was about to tell her how arid, if not bleak, those years had been, how he had dreamed of more meaningful work, but then he stopped his thoughts before they burst out into words. It wasn’t appropriate to confide in her. She respected him, didn’t she? One might almost call her a student.

“A season has passed,” he said, when the silence went on too long. “Spring’s here. You can see it on the bus.”

“Really?” Tamar perked up and took a look around. “How can you tell?”

Instead of pointing to the obvious—how the women on this mostly secular bus were wearing far less clothing—he gestured with his chin, “Look at all the jump ropes. The young girls are starting up again.”

She twisted her long neck to scan the younger passengers. “You’re right.” She nodded, her eyes creasing in amusement. “I wouldn’t have
thought you’d be the kind of man to pay attention to these little things.”

“And what kind of man is that?” he asked, bending his head a little.

“Actually, I hardly know myself.” She let out a laugh. “Not my father, I’ll tell you that much.”

“Your father?” Here in Israel, surrounded by so many immigrants who had made new homes for themselves, he had a way of forgetting people had pasts … and parents. “Are you close with your father?”

“No,” she said. “Not really. There’s not much of a connection. He took off in my early teens.” He saw her throat move a little, as if trying to dislodge a small obstruction. “Actually, I think I’ve reached an age where I no longer need to talk about my sad, boring childhood.” She looked at him pointedly, as if hoping he’d pull it out of her just the same. But this was not a conversation for a bus, and all he said was, “No childhood story is ever accurate. The father’s memories aren’t the same as the son’s.”

“Nope, I guess not. Maybe,” she offered, “all the people who became religious need to meet teachers and rabbis and rebbetzins to get a parenting they never had.”

He considered this, was moved by her observation. “There’s something to that. Often, a good teacher gives you a second chance.” A memory came back, when he was in second grade and kept missing school for weeks at a time because of upper respiratory infections. His mother tended to him with a consuming mother’s devotion, but one day his father took him aside, pushed him flat up against the wall, and said in a low, gruff voice, “Your mother is all I have in this world. If you ever come between the two of us”—here, his father brought his head so close, their noses touched—“I will make your life miserable.” Isaac had been all of seven at the time, and he had pished in his pants. For the longest time, he’d never felt entitled to anything, certainly not to his mother. But the rebbe had brought him in, given him a measure of contentment in the courtyard, and that second chance.

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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