Authors: Evan Fallenberg
“Shut up, Coby,” says the other guard. “Don’t talk about the residents that way. Don’t talk about them at all, in fact.”
“Hi, everybody. Sorry.” Noam hugs each brother in turn, but catches himself before embracing his off-limits sister-in-law. “Dad’s not coming with us?”
No one answers.
“All right, let’s go to shul.”
Out on the street they jostle one another, bumping shoulders and arms. Gidi leads the way to a
, the tiny makeshift synagogue of an ultra-Orthodox sect whose aged rebbe lives in the center of Tel Aviv, the heart and soul of Israeli hedonism. His followers are known for their fierce piety, the eyes of the men permanently cast downward to avoid gazing upon tempting Tel Avivans. Batya is the only one trying to keep pace, dutifully following several paces behind her husband. Ethan and Gavri talk seriously about the recent bombings, the situation in Lebanon, Israel in the wake of Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination. Noam and Daniel stroll more leisurely at the rear. Daniel listens while Noam attempts to sort out the intricacies of his current relationships, but as the names and events pile up, Daniel’s thoughts float to the lonely young Indian woman from the start of his day. Gidi makes frantic hand signals to encourage his brothers to walk faster, and at the corner of Nordau and Ibn Gvirol streets he turns to shout at them, his face pink with effort and anger. “We’ll be late for
prayers! Hurry or we’ll miss
!” he sputters, his voice a high, tight squeak.
Batya tries to concentrate on walking quickly by fixing her eyes on the heels of her husband’s black shoes, but she is distracted by so much of what she sees in the shop windows and hears from balconies and gardens that she finds herself falling behind time and again. Worse, by far, are the wonderful scents that float past her: simmering chicken soup, breaded schnitzels frying in their pans, a late-baked braided bread loaf encrusted with slightly singed raisins. Tel Aviv has gone quiet, the lull when the Friday brunchers and shoppers— who only several hours earlier had crammed the sidewalk cafés on Shenkin Street and the arts and crafts stalls in Nahalat Binyamin—are home resting in preparation for late-night raids on sushi bars, Arab grills in Jaffa, and countless dimly lit pubs and trendy discos that dot the city like poppy seeds on a challah. The only people they pass are older men in skullcaps and Sabbath finery, rushing this way or that to the synagogue of their choice. No one exchanges greetings.
A musky twilight has settled on the city by the time they reach the
. Inside the front door, next to a hat rack upon which hang several rows of identical fur-trimmed
, the men part company with Batya, who ascends a dark stairway to the women’s section. Downstairs, forty or fifty men and boys, all in striped frock coats, shiny black knickers, and white stockings, are engaged in prayer or study, rocking, swaying, reading. Several tug at their beards and one or two chat in low whispers while the cantor intones the end of the
service, his prayers punctuated with periodic “
” from the congregation in their Yiddish lilt. Gidi rushes to a half-empty row near the front and breaks immediately into a speed sway, as if he can make up for being late by rocking faster and harder than anyone else in the
. Ethan joins him, rocking at a slower pace. Gavri, who has already prayed
, selects a Bible from the shelves and stands next to Ethan, reading. Daniel and Noam remain in the back, by the wall. Noam pats the top of his head where the curls grow thickest, checking to make sure the skullcap he clipped there as he entered his father’s building is still hanging on. He leans toward his brother. “I live ten minutes from here, in another world and a different century,” he says quietly, shaking his head.
A freckled teenager with curled orange sidelocks shushes him.
Noam glares at the freckled boy. “Look up there,” he says to Daniel, pointing toward the women’s section, a tiny room overhanging the men’s section, its window obscured by a metal grate and a heavy curtain. “They couldn’t possibly see anything from behind all that. Air wouldn’t even pass through,” he says in disbelief. The freckled boy gets up and moves to a spot on the other side of the room.
The service is long and slow. At its conclusion, the rebbe, a stooped ancient with a wispy beard that makes him look more like a wizened Chinese sage than a wise old Jew, rises to address the crowd. There is complete silence in the small room and all books are quietly closed; no one will dare sneak a read now. The men all lean forward and cup their ears to catch the rebbe’s parched wisdom, which pops from his mouth in dry, wooden bubbles. His voice fails; his eyes water; he gazes past the heads of his loyal followers at nothing; he seems to forget what he started to say, but he continues for twenty minutes, maybe thirty. No one stirs or grows restless except for one or two members of the Licht family. When he sits down at last, midsentence, or rather midgurgle, the room erupts into song. Chairs and tables are moved aside to make room for dancing. Gidi, Gavri, and Ethan join the circle of dancers. Noam leaves the room but Daniel remains leaning against the wall, his mouth forming a small smile that grows slightly larger and warmer as Ethan dances by with a shrug, as if to explain his bewilderment.
Batya is standing alone outside the
, huddled in her coat, when Noam joins her. “
,” she says, looking down.
“Shabbat Shalom to you, too,” he responds, relieved to be in the cold night air. He glances up and down the quiet street, aware that there is no traffic, almost no noise at all apart from the low rush and hum of a city after dark.
Noam sighs heavily then says to the sky, “That was really something.” He catches Batya looking at him, her mouth slightly ajar, like a child of five watching the performing lions at a circus, all curiosity and fear. “Do you go to a synagogue like that one?” he asks her.
“Oh,” she answers breathlessly, “ours is much bigger.” She nods vigorously and seems pleased to have been asked something to which she knows the single correct response.
“But, I mean, do the women sit behind an iron wall there, too?”
She smiles, indulging a question only a child would ask. “It’s not a wall. We can hear through it just fine!”
“Do most women come to shul or do they wait for their husbands at home?”
“Mothers and grandmothers stay home, for sure, but the older girls go to shul to pray.”
She pauses and bites her bottom lip as if trying to prevent what she is about to say. Noam looks into her pale, round face, waiting patiently for her to continue.
“The married women who have not yet been blessed with children go to shul to pray, too,” she says quietly.
He considers how different she is from the women he knows, all bristling with confidence, strong headed and focused. Their perfumes, their hairstyles, their plain cotton panties, and executive suits share a common cri de coeur: take me as I am, love me the way I want; my needs are just as important as yours, my desires of equal worth. But this child-woman, his own and only sister-in-law, what is her breed? What is her species? Awisp of her hair, bright orange even in the glazed light of a street lamp, has escaped from the carefully wrapped scarf on her head, and though he does not dare do it, Noam has the overwhelming urge to tuck it gently back into place and cup her soft, freckled cheek in the palm of his hand. Instead, he says sotto voce, in a tone usually reserved for low whispers of love, “And I’m certain God will answer their prayers.”
Batya is instantly elated, as though Noam, the family apostate, has some inside track to the truth, a private and personal relationship with God himself. “Yes, God willing!” she says, flushing. “I’m certain, too!”
Daniel appears in the doorway, silent. The
empties quickly. Men and boys in fur
gush into the street like beavers in a river. Ethan and the twins are among the last to emerge.
“Now that’s what I call a great service,” says Gidi, more loudly than necessary. He nods to his wife, then both look away.
Ethan looks to his eldest brother, Daniel, then claps his hands. “All right, gentlemen and lady, let’s get going. We’ve got a long walk back and Father is probably already wondering what’s happened to us.”
“Who cares what Father thinks?” Gidi says dismissively. “I don’t want to get back there any sooner than necessary.”
“He’s gone to a lot of trouble and this is really important to him,” says Gavri. “I think it’s the least we can do for him.”
“After all he’s done for us?”
“It doesn’t matter who or what he is,” Gavri tells his twin and his other brothers. “He’s still our father and we owe him a certain amount of respect. That’s the only reason I’m here this weekend.”
“And to see all of us, of course,” adds Ethan.
They walk in a group now, the streets still drained of people.
“Anyone seen Mother lately?” Noam asks offhandedly.
“I stopped over and had a nap there this morning on the way down from Lebanon,” Ethan says, proud to exert his primacy in this field. Then he adds quickly, “And Daniel was there this morning, too.”
Gavri scowls. “I meant to call. All day I kept thinking I would get to it but I never did. Gosh, am I a loser sometimes.”
“She looked a little funny to me,” Ethan says, “and she kept avoiding me whenever I tried to talk about it with her.”
“What do you mean ‘funny’?” asks Gavri.
“Misshapen or something. Almost like she’s pregnant.”
“That would be something, wouldn’t it?” says Gidi. “A little brother for us all, or maybe at long last a sister. Batya’s aunt gave birth to her seventeenth child on her fiftieth birthday, so I guess it’s not impossible.”
Noam slaps him on the back, chuckling. “Batya’s aunt probably had a husband at the time.”
Gavri laughs louder and longer than Noam. “Maybe it’s Grandfather’s baby! Maybe this kid will be our brother and our cousin!”
Daniel stops walking and turns to Gavri. His eyes have narrowed to slits and his fists are clenched at his sides. “Shut up already with your nonsense! Don’t ever say anything like that again!”
Daniel walks ahead while the other boys and Batya linger for a moment. When he is out of earshot Ethan says glumly, “You guys don’t remember what it was like when Father left and the kids in school used to tease us. We were the only boys without a father, except for Meir Cohen. But his father was killed in the Yom Kippur War, so he was a hero. We were freaks. Worse yet, there was this disgusting rumor about Mother and Grandfather that went around school—around the whole village, in fact. Bina Hartog actually came up to Daniel and me at the greengrocer’s and asked if it was true that Father had left because Mother and Grandfather were . . . in love.” He stops, surveying his brothers’ reactions. Noam is watching Daniel, already a block away from them. Gavri and Batya, repelled and fascinated, wait wide eyed for more. Gidi is holding his sides as if in pain. “I didn’t really understand then what she was talking about, but I understood it was quite bad. Bad enough to make Daniel ram a shopping cart into her and knock her into a big stack of egg cartons. He really banged her up pretty bad, and there were broken eggs everywhere, and Motty, who was the owner then, told him never to set foot inside the shop again. And you know it’s the only shop in the village. I thought that punishment was much worse than what Daniel had done to Bina. He ran out crying and didn’t come home until well after dark. And he didn’t go back to the greengrocer’s for years and years. Remember how he would send us in, Noam, and make us describe what was in the sweets section and then send us back again with the cash to make the purchase? Do you remember what he always said?”
“‘I’ll beat you to dust if you so much as take a whiff of my candy,’” Noam says without a smile. Daniel has turned a corner and is out of his sight. “Enough of this. Let’s go to Father’s,” he says.
All the light has been sucked out of the sky by the sun, which has disappeared beneath the horizon. The boys are late. The food has been heating too long and heavy clouds are gliding swiftly inland over the water. What is keeping them? Joseph wonders. There may be a downpour before they make it back.
Joseph stares ahead at his reflection in the glass doors of the terrace, a man alone, dwarfed in his chair, waiting for his tardy guests. He and his house are now ready. It is dark and quiet; the Sabbath queen has arrived in her cloak of heavy silence. Suddenly Joseph no longer feels like fussing over the meal. He does not care if the wine is breathing or the hot plate has overheated the food. He tries to remember why this reunion meant so much to him. Pepe warned him, said his sons would be ungrateful. Is he to expect a whole weekend of being snubbed?
For fortification, or retreat, Joseph gathers the sheets of paper in his lap and reads.
I am saturated with the love of our last meeting, as though
the bones and blood and tissue have been removed from my
body and replaced with pure light, a holy radiance suffused
with the breath of angels. I feel it swirling inside me, frothing;
it makes me light and buoyant, I am a bubble on a wave,
a butterfly on a breeze. I see only stars and moonlight, hear
only symphonies. I cannot work, I have no need for sleep, no
desire for food, but when I do read or taste or dream it is
always you that my ears or tongue or heart wishes to recapture.
I have sought out G-d my whole life and followed His
commandments carefully, inviting them to permeate every
waking hour of my every day, as it is said, Remember all
G-d’s commandments and perform them. But I have never
known such joy, such elation of spirit as I do today. J’avais
reduit mon ame a une seule melodie, plaintive et monotone;
j’avais fait de ma vie du silence, ou ne devait monter qu’un
psaume. And what did that psalm say? Put not your trust in
princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His
breath goes forth, he returns to his earth; in that very day his
thoughts perish. But what are you, Joseph, if not G-d’s very
essence? Only through you can I feel His presence like a second
soul juxtaposed with my own, only through you can I
understand His highest attribute: love. It is clear to me
through the love we have created together that this was His
intention all along, that we know each other in order to know
Him, that our spiritual and physical love is the love He feels
for all creation. And so we honor Him by loving one another: