Authors: Evan Fallenberg
Rabbi Yoel took the card from Joseph. “That’s not my writing. I have no idea—” He stopped midsentence, frowning, as though recalling something.
“What is it?” From the look on his face Joseph thought the rabbi was experiencing some intense pain.
“I’m no expert in Kabbalah. That is really not my field,” he answered slowly. He seemed to be reading from a page long since photographed by his amazing mind. “But it seems to me that, that . . .”
“It’s absurd. Kabbalistic nonsense, I suppose, but it reminds me of something I read once by an obscure Kabbalist of Safed. He claimed that God has three ways of letting two people know they are divinely suited to one another: by a tune they both know but have not learned from anyone around them; by a dream they have shared on the same night; and by a written word that appears to them both and has meaning only to them.”
Joseph felt light-headed as he tilted his head back, raising his eyes slowly past Yoel’s throat, his bearded chin, his full lips, his pale cheeks. When he reached Yoel’s eyes they seemed to be asking a question, and Joseph, as sure as he knew his name, knew he had the answer. He tilted his head back farther, closed his eyes, and moved his mouth closer to Yoel’s.
The first kiss was no more than a brush of lips, so soft it could have been the beating of butterfly wings. He did not open his eyes to see the bliss and turmoil on Yoel’s face. He could only register the lips as they brushed his again, this time lingering, touching. At the third kiss Joseph leaned in just slightly, the press of Yoel’s lips stronger this time. Thus they stood, their bodies touching only at the lips, and Joseph thought he could be happy to stand like this, kissing but not kissing, forever.
A thought floated across his mind like a banner: A MAN IS KISSING ME. Indeed, the sensation was like none he had ever known. Yoel’s lips were full and dry, fleshy pillows for Joseph’s own thin mouth, his beard and mustache soft as tickly feathers that smelled of soap and tobacco and something mysterious and exciting he could not name.
He opened his eyes just a bit to catch a glimpse of Yoel’s mouth through the veil of his lashes. It was open in a half pant of desire, a small dark cave in the midst of the forest of his beard. He could see it was moist and warm beyond those thick, dry lips and Joseph longed to lose himself inside, swallowed and devoured headfirst. He rose on his toes to meet Yoel’s mouth again. I AM KISSING A MAN. He pulled away for another glimpse, as if to convince himself. Yoel opened his eyes and together they stood staring at what they were about to do and where it would lead them. Open eyed, they kissed again briefly. Then, in silent agreement, they stopped. Yoel put his arms around Joseph and Joseph pressed his head against the expanse of Yoel’s chest and they stood, barely breathing, adrift at the gateway to their new world, until a distant car horn brought them back to their old, real world and Joseph slipped out into the night, knowing nothing would ever be the same again.
Although they began to speak by telephone daily, several weeks passed before they could schedule another meeting. Both had been awed by the ardor of their encounter, the long and passionate parting embrace that was less a goodbye than a bridge to whatever would come next. They had an inkling of an idea what would happen between them, though neither could truly imagine the experience. It was too new for them.
They arranged to meet at an unoccupied apartment owned by Yoel’s in-laws, in the midst of the first true winter in Israel in more than a decade. Pounding rain kneaded and sculpted the dunes up and down the coast, bridges were flooded by swollen streams, and the road to the Dead Sea remained closed for an entire week. In Jerusalem snow fell four times, twice a fine powder that vanished within hours and twice a thick and heavy quilt that snapped the branches of unaccustomed firs and pines and paralyzed the city for days.
Joseph overshot the narrow alley twice and gingerly skirted a shindeep puddle. Blinding rain nearly obliterated the small ceramic street sign. Finally he spotted the diamond-shaped lamp that Yoel had described over a doorway and felt a flood of relief. Like a medieval guild member, he thought as he pulled the bell cord to be let in: Yoel’s father-in-law advertises his profession even here, a continent away from his business interests.
Inside, Joseph’s noise and bustle broke the heavy silence of the staid stone house. He shook water off himself, scattering droplets around the slate foyer floor. He stomped his feet and tossed his umbrella into a brass barrel. He barked a cheery hello to Yoel, who stood to the side, pensive, wrapped in a thick wool cardigan, hands thrust deep in his pockets. Joseph felt exhilarated by his battle with the elements; even his fingers and toes throbbed. His eyes were bright and shiny, his cheeks flushed with color and health. His head felt clear. He’d made it, he had succeeded in fighting the rain, making the necessary arrangements, and here he was, in a large house in the Old City of Jerusalem with his new, dear friend. Everything in him shouted,
Life! Optimism! Happiness!
and for once he was inclined to listen.
Even Yoel’s tepid response to a strong and solid hug did not deter Joseph, who felt emboldened by the drama of the weather. He rubbed his hands together, offered a true and generous smile, and demanded the cup of tea with sugar cookies he had been promised.
“I’ve made a hot spiced wine. Neither of us has to drive or go anywhere on this dreadful evening. I thought it would be relaxing.”
Joseph was heartened by this small surprise. Yoel looked as though he needed to loosen up and enough wine might do just that. “Perfect!” he exclaimed, again too boisterous and self-assured for the shadowy room.
The large salon was filled with furniture, knickknacks, and sculpture, but Joseph was drawn to the view of the Wailing Wall from an enormous window that framed the two-thousand-year-old ruin like a kitschy watercolor. Yoel stood near him but gazed at the wall through a different window. A dozen or so men stood praying despite the pummeling rain, and one ragged figure sat slumped in a chair in the women’s section, a plastic shopping basket at her side.
Yoel spoke in a quiet voice spiked with anger. “Their supplications leave me cold. Why don’t they spend more time trying to improve the world around them instead of praying to ‘renew our days of old’ or ‘bring the Messiah now’? Such a waste of God’s precious time.”
Joseph turned sideways to look at his friend. Yoel continued to stare straight forward, and Joseph could see the bitter rage in his clenched jaw and narrowed lids, his hands still rammed into his trouser pockets.
“They’re all lacking something, wishing for something. I can’t help feeling sorry for them,” Joseph said softly. He took a step closer to Yoel and looked up into his half-turned face. “Anyway, let’s celebrate our good fortune with that wine you’ve prepared for us.”
Yoel relaxed his shoulders, turned toward Joseph, and smiled in acquiescence. “You’ll like this,” he said as he poured from a crystal decanter. Joseph bent his head into the rich scent of cloves and citrus and cinnamon that wafted from his glass. As he tilted it to his mouth Yoel stopped him with a gentle hand and recited the appropriate blessing.
Joseph dropped onto a plush sofa, hoping his friend would join him, but Yoel seated himself in an armchair to his right. He offered Joseph sugar cookies. They spoke of the apartment, Yoel’s in-laws, the weather. As they sipped the hot wine Yoel recited a poem too quickly for Joseph to catch and decipher, a poem he said had been written by a Muslim cleric for a young Christian boy. Joseph retained only the closing stanza:
If only I were the priest, or the metropolitan
of his church, or else his Gospel and Bible;
Or if only I were the sacrifice he offers
or his cup of wine, or a bubble in the wine.
Yoel pointed to a small stack of books on the coffee table in front of them, each with protruding slips of colored paper. “I’ve been asked to speak to a group of American Jewish leaders next week and I hoped you could help me by translating a few passages into your perfect American English.”
A bit deflated at the prospect of spending this precious evening poring over heady texts, Joseph nonetheless made a quick peace with himself and said he would be delighted. Yoel moved to sit beside him on the sofa, in order to explain what he needed, and Joseph could not help but notice the way his long, thick fingers caressed the holy books, the deep resonance of his voice as he read the verses. Joseph could barely restrain his urge to lean on Yoel’s shoulder, to feel the pulse of his big body.
“So that’s all you really need to know. I hope it’s not asking too much. You can write it all down on this pad of paper. Just please write neatly so that I’ll be able to make sense of it later.” He stood quickly and Joseph nearly fell into the crater of space left in his wake. “I’ll leave you alone with it for a little while. I know how hard translating is, especially with someone looking over your shoulder.” Yoel’s mood was lighter now, almost cheerful, and he bounded out of the room at a joyful clip.
Joseph opened the top book on the pile. It was something he recognized, a passage from Maimonides about the place of man in the universe. The text was straightforward, but he could not reproduce the great scholar’s tone in English. It came out sounding too common, too modern and American, and he wished he was capable of a Shakespearean translation, something to elevate the English version. The next text was Buber, so he skipped ahead, hoping that would be more accessibly modern. Agnon, Ahad Ha’am, Flavius Josephus— here they were, a pantheon of Jewish minds, each with demands of his own. Joseph began each with hope and interest and ceased each translation midtext. His disappointment with the turn of events grew with his frustration.
Half an hour passed, then another. Joseph sat with one foot buried beneath him in the sofa cushions, the other on the floor. The books lay open on his lap and on either side of him and in front of him on the table. Words mounted one another on the page, rolling and tumbling and frolicking together in a passionate riot. He had had too much wine and felt at once too relaxed and too agitated to be competent, so he tugged at locks of his hair, gathering clumps, first pulling, then releasing, hoping to call himself to attention. He kept his head bowed to the page in front of him, watching the words perform stunts, enjoying the negative image as he moved his eyes from print to blank space and back again. He did not hear Yoel approach as much as felt him draw near. Joseph could sense the tread of Yoel’s stockinged feet as they led him toward something altogether new.
Yoel cleared a space and sat down on the edge of the coffee table, legs wide apart, encompassing all of Joseph and the books surrounding him in the angle of his large body. He leaned across the narrow space of floor between them and closed the book on Joseph’s lap, and Joseph noticed, without looking up, that Yoel had failed to bring his fingers to his lips, despite the fact that the book he had just closed was a holy text. He watched as the last printed words that had been taunting him faded into the black cover, the edges of the classical Hebrew letters disappearing first, then their legs and heads and finally their trunks. Still Joseph did not look up, for he was afraid of what would happen. He knew the look he would find on Yoel’s face and he knew he would feel responsible, guilty. A fine rabbi, a brilliant scholar, a—
He saw Yoel’s hand reach out, and when it touched him, landing gently on his right cheek, Joseph was surprised it did not scorch him. The hand was cool and dry, its touch light but firm. Joseph held his breath while the hand moved across his face, skimming the surface of his skin. It slid to the back of his neck, still light and gentle, but insistent now, just a little, moving Joseph’s head forward in imperceptible degrees, the fingers moving, massaging. Joseph’s eyes were closed, but he smelled Yoel’s beard as it grazed his cheek and he turned into it like a blind man to sound. It seemed to Joseph that there were no other movements or sounds or emotions anywhere, that at that particular point in time the universe was focused on this house, this room, these two men.
A wave of cool air rolled against Joseph’s neck and cheek as Yoel leaned away from him. He brought Joseph’s hands together and held them in his own, concealing them and taking possession. He kissed Joseph’s fingers, curling and unfurling them, bringing them to his own face. Joseph looked with his eyes and with his hands into the visage of this man he had known such a short time, and all the desperate longing he had known fell away from him, stone walls of protection crumbling to sand and dust, and in their place rose a bright, hard passion. Joseph removed his hands and waited for Yoel to open his eyes, then kissed him, watching his eyes, kissing him at the sides of his mouth where the hairs of his mustache grew long and gold. Then he, too, leaned back, and waited.
Yoel took Joseph by the shoulders and eased him down into the sofa until he lay flat, then dropped to the floor, only his head above the cushions. He spread his arms like the wings of a soaring eagle and touched Joseph’s head and feet. He lay his head on Joseph’s stomach and played his hands up and down his body, stopping to explore and examine. Joseph felt Yoel was learning him, that he was committing the text of Joseph’s body to memory. A genius, an
, so why not this, too? Why not use his gift on Joseph? Yoel’s large head lay comfortably upon him, like a precious egg, Joseph’s middle section a nest, and Joseph was reluctantly reminded of Rebecca, how her body seemed always to jab him so that he was forced to change positions every minute or so.
Yoel raised his head and for a moment looked at the body laid out before him. He seemed to be at a crossroads. He lost no time, however, in choosing a direction and began undressing Joseph—methodically, slowly, just as he might undress his own children. First the socks, then the sweater, the trousers, the shirt, folding each article of clothing and putting it on the table behind him without ever taking his eyes from Joseph. He paused briefly when he reached the
and seemed poised to kiss the fringes of this holy ritual undergarment. Joseph knew he was contemplating the daily admonition not to stray after one’s heart. He could see behind the wise, saddened eyes the centuries of rabbinical commentaries and moral tales and
about that passage that must have been rushing through the genius rabbi’s brain, and certainly many others about the evil inclination. But Yoel banished these thoughts; Joseph could feel the weight of centuries of learning and tradition being rolled heavily to the side. Yoel removed the fringed garment resolutely, but more carefully than all the others, and placed it atop the pile. All this he did without any help from Joseph, shifting him slightly from side to side, arcing and bending his limbs. Soon Joseph lay bare chested and bare legged on the sofa, one thin layer of cloth still covering the intersection of his legs and trunk.