Authors: Evan Fallenberg
Desire of my heart and delight of my eyes . . .
Rise and feed me with the honey of your lips, and satisfy me.
I will be ravished by your beauty—G-d is there!
I have vaulted over the River Jordan with my lance and found
a new world there: your love and G-d’s love. I am profoundly
altered and deeply grateful.
Joseph did not know that this would be the only letter he would ever receive from Yoel. At first he did not scrutinize the letter, asked no questions of it. He was enchanted, enraptured, a prisoner of its mellifluence, a fly caught in its sticky honey. He noted, of course, that the letter was not expressly addressed to him, nor was it signed; however, Joseph understood that their precarious position—the danger inherent in their relationship—required such precautions.
But in the years without Yoel, in his absence and in the absence of any other letters to balance or explain it, Joseph has made a study of this one missive, has spent time deciphering it, twisting it, turning it, standing it on its head, climbing into its syntax; in his dreams he has kissed and fondled the words, tossed them in the air, rolled them into a pillow to sleep on, sucked them like hard candies. But in all those years he has never swallowed them, never could. He has tracked them to their sources and discovered their roots. And what he has found is nothing more than a man in thrall, a man who had discovered his own body and had touched, for the first time, his own desire, and with his new knowledge had ceased to believe all he had believed before. Worse, he had stolen from the treasure of his tremendous knowledge to pay the price of that desire.
Joseph recognized several of Yoel’s references without acknowledging them on his first reading. They aroused his suspicions to his beloved’s distortions, but only many months later, when he was adapting to his new life and could afford to spare a corner of his battered soul for reflection, did he pursue the issue. Why, for instance, had Yoel pointed out that he had spent his life remembering God’s commandments and performing them while ignoring the rest of the verse: . . .
and do not wander after your heart and your eyes after
which you may stray?
How could he mock the advice of the psalmist never to put his trust in human beings when that very trust would trip them both up such a short time later?
Yoel’s nod to the Talmudic story of Resh Lakish at the River Jordan proved more puzzling. Here was a sinner, a Romanized Jew, who had stripped off his clothes and vaulted the river for carnal reasons—the sight of the exceedingly beautiful Rabbi Yohanan!—but was spiritually transformed by the experience; returned, as it were, to tradition, law, and study. How could Yoel compare himself to a Jewish thief, a sometime gladiator, steeped in the pleasures of Rome, delivered late to the hand of God? Was Yoel not Resh Lakish’s very antithesis?
After this frightful revelation Joseph set out in pursuit of the other two sources, possessed with deciphering the mystery Yoel had left him: had Yoel purposefully, blasphemously, plundered his knowledge, distorting what he knew in order to justify his relationship with Joseph? Or was he naively discovering new meanings in words he had always known? The fragment of poem in his letter proffered clues through language and imagery. A thick volume of medieval Spanish Jewish poetry that Joseph found in a dimly lit section of the university library yielded a whole series of poems written by the greatest poets of the era—Yehuda HaLevi, Shlomo Ibn Gvirol, Moshe Ibn Ezra—to and about young men they fancied. The one Yoel quoted was by Ibn Ezra, but here he had clearly selected exactly what suited him, omitting the rest:
Desire of my heart and delight of my eyes . . .
Many admonish me, but I do not heed;
Come, O gazelle, and I will subdue them.
Time will destroy them and death shepherd them.
Come, O gazelle, rise and feed me
With the honey of your lips, and satisfy me.
Why do they hold back my heart, why?
If because of sin and guilt,
I will be ravished by your beauty—God is there!
In Yoel’s condensed version the admonishers were abolished. Gone, too, were the sin and guilt. Yoel had dispensed with the unpleasantries and left intact the beauty and the passion. Joseph could not rid himself of the thought that if Yoel had only been able to acknowledge the critics and the sin and the guilt he might have been able to live with them. Long before Joseph finally found and deciphered Yoel’s French quote in an English translation of Marguerite Yourcenar’s
, borrowed from a colleague, he knew all he needed to draw his conclusions: the sum of Yoel’s cheap and unworthy distortions was a huge deception; he had cheated all those involved in the relationship—himself, Joseph, and God.
Just as he thinks that the last of his resolve and energy have dropped away like beads from a broken necklace, Joseph holds in a deep breath, then lets it seep slowly out. He begins collecting those beads one by one.
I have reached fifty in excellent
health. I live in a beautiful home with a man who cares deeply
for me. I am respected in my field. I have made difficult choices in
my life. I have tried to be fair with everyone.
His breathing has quickened again and he feels color rushing to his cheeks.
love my sons and I will love my daughter-in-law. I have given them
the most precious gift a parent can give: the support to become
exactly who and what they wish to be.
He hears the door to the stairwell creak open.
I will not let them ruin my celebration in
my own home.
He stands, bracing himself to greet them.
Joseph does not gently prod his family into the dining room as he might with other guests. He precedes them so that he can watch their reactions as they enter. Indeed, the room has an effect. The wood and silver gleam in pools of yellow light, the crystal catches and refracts the thousand tiny blazes from the chandelier, and the china is polished to such a shine that it mirrors the fresco on the ceiling. Huge oil paintings and massive furniture dwarf his guests. They are subdued and compliant as Joseph establishes the seating arrangement: the twins and Batya on one side of the table, Ethan and Noam facing them, and Daniel at its head facing Joseph at the foot, closest to the kitchen. They struggle with their tall, carved chairs. Batya throws a suspicious backward glance at the English hunting scene on the wall behind her, as if to make sure the hounds in the foreground have not moved any closer.
Joseph begins to relax as his sons sing “Peace Be Upon You,” though he is baffled by their preference for their grandfather’s German tune and not the more Israeli, minorkey melody they insisted on as children. He joins them for the second verse. Only Batya is silent. Her eyes are closed and she sways to the chanting of so many men, but she does not open her mouth.
Kol b’isha ervah
, he suddenly remembers, the prohibition against hearing a woman’s singing voice in public.
Batya’s brown button eyes open wide at the start of “A Woman of Valor.” This time she does not sway. Her face tilts over her plate and she seems in pain at being singled out, keenly aware of her only-woman status at the table. But Joseph doubts whether any of these men, even her husband, is singing to her. He assumes it is Rebecca who visits their thoughts, as she does his. She once told the boys, when she and Joseph were still married, that this was the payment owed her for a week’s toil; that all those meals, all those loads of laundry, all those words of support and hours of help with homework and bandaged knees and clean diapers could be paid off by singing her this one song, with intent and emotion, before the start of the Sabbath evening meal. To this day, Ethan has told Joseph, she insists on this serenade by whichever of her sons is on hand. What Joseph does not tell his sons is that these are the very words he included in the letter he put on her pillow when he left home that last time.
By mutual consent Gidi is chosen to make the blessing over the wine. Joseph is silent as his ultra-Orthodox son rejects the ornate Turkish silver
cup and the fine merlot, fetching his own cup and wine from the kitchen. He speaks the blessing rather than singing it, using Yiddish inflections and pronunciation instead of Hebrew. Joseph winces and wonders how his father tolerates Gidi’s vexatious visits. He is relieved when they have finished laving their hands and have made the blessing over the bread. Now he is in control of the evening and, he feels certain, the atmosphere will loosen up and become more enjoyable from course to course.
They are discussing the synagogue service when Joseph reenters the dining room with the hors d’oeuvres on a large silver tray. Self-consciously he announces the course in French but his guests are all listening to Noam. “Who can possibly understand the prayers in that accent?” Noam is asking.
“The words are not so much the point,” counters Gidi. Joseph pauses at the note of passion in his voice, glad to hear that something has finally shaken him from his angry silence. “It’s a whole ambiance. Couldn’t you feel the energy in that room, the intense love of the Holy Name and all his creatures?”
Noam frowns. His voice is slightly louder this time. “What about those creatures who drive on the Sabbath? ‘Shabbes! Shabbes!’ your friends shout at them as they pelt them with stones. Is that love?”
“It’s hard to sit by and watch people err,” answers Gidi, looking around the table.
“Bon appetit,” Joseph calls out cheerfully, then disappears again into the kitchen. Had any of his sons offered assistance Joseph would have waved him back to his seat. Each course stands ready to be served; there is almost nothing left to organize. Besides, the kitchen is his kingdom and his refuge. There is no conspiratorial feeling here, just a contented hush that Joseph appreciates now more than ever.
He is doubly glad to be alone in the kitchen when he opens the refrigerator and discovers he has forgotten to turn off the light inside. Wasn’t this small but crucial chore included on his list? Without wasting a second he shifts the light switch to
and closes the door. Had Gidi seen him, he would no doubt have forbidden his father and everyone else from opening the refrigerator for the entire Sabbath. Joseph’s meals would have been reduced to farcical improvisations of what should have been an outstanding culinary experience. While taking three deep breaths to calm his nerves before serving the soup he wonders what other Shabbat rituals he has neglected, what other Shabbat rules he will need to break to steer them safely through the weekend.
All seven Lichts eat their soup in silence. No one requests seconds. Noam, needing an excuse to leave the room, comes to help Joseph bring the main dishes to the table. “It was worse than you could imagine. Be glad you didn’t come.” Still distraught by the ultra-Orthodox service, he does not whisper. Joseph shushes him.
“How can the women stand it, or the men for that matter?” Noam is pacing the far end of the kitchen while Joseph loads food onto trays. “If the services weren’t bad enough, the speech at the end was sickening. This ancient rabbi rambles on for half an hour. I could understand about one-tenth of what he was saying. Then, when he finishes, everyone starts dancing and singing like madmen. It turned my stomach to watch them all in that frenzy.”
Joseph does not wish to take sides. He and Noam can agree on this point only when the other boys are not around. More than anything, he wishes to maintain an ambiance of tranquillity this weekend. So he says lightly, as he removes a casserole from the hot plate, “Let’s try and keep the peace around here, shall we? Even if we don’t necessarily agree with everything.” He delivers the food to the dining room before Noam can respond.
A few minutes later, finally seated, Joseph is dismayed to realize that he has forgotten nothing: all the dishes are on the table along with their dressings and serving utensils. There is ice water; there are condiments; there are even toothpicks in a pewter dispenser. He has no more excuses to jump up and run to the kitchen.
Joseph picks at his dinner. His throat feels narrower than usual; the food, even the soup, does not seem to want to slide down it. Gidi and Batya have placed their aluminum-wrapped meals on his dishes, but the others are eating his meal heartily, putting a bigger dent into the platters of beef and chicken and the deep bowls of salad than he guessed they would. The potato
is particularly popular.
In fact, the only thing that passes Joseph’s lips without trouble is the merlot, which he has been steadily consuming. He is pleased to note that Noam, Ethan, and Gavri have been keeping pace with him, and that Batya and Gidi, too, have emptied a fair portion of their own bottle of sweet red; only Daniel stopped after the first glass. Joseph takes three swift gulps from his wineglass and clears his throat.
“Do you boys still like to sing Sabbath songs? I thought maybe you would . . .” He jumps to his feet too quickly and steadies himself on the stone table. He weaves toward the buffet table under the hunting scene, removing a cellophane-wrapped packet of song booklets that he begins to distribute among his guests. “Please,” he says as he passes them around the table, “please choose a song.”
The boys and Batya thumb through their booklets. They do not meet one another’s glances. Joseph resumes his place at the foot of the table and thumbs through his booklet, too. “‘
’ perhaps, or how about ‘
’?” He is practically begging.
Gavri is the first to sing, an under-the-breath wordless hum that blossoms into the first verse. Tears of gratitude pool in Joseph’s eyes, but he waits to join the singing until the others have. They sing the old, slow tune with feeling, so that even Batya forgets herself and adds her voice. The candles jump and flicker. Someone sings harmony and Joseph leans back in his chair, letting an incautious thought slip into his mind: that perhaps this reunion will pass without incident, that he and his sons will have come together in peace after twenty years.