Authors: Evan Fallenberg
Yoel stood up, and to Joseph he seemed taller and more massive than ever. He believed that if Yoel were to spread his hands in the air, above Joseph’s body, Joseph would levitate to his palms like iron to a magnet. Yoel gazed down at Joseph, and as he undressed himself he said, “For all the knowledge I have amassed, I do not understand the Holy One, blessed be he. I have asked him one hundred if not one thousand times since I met you what he had in mind in bringing us together.” Yoel looked to the window, forming his arms into a gesture of supplication. “If this is a test, if bringing me together with the other half of my very soul in the form of a man is your way of making me prove my love and devotion to you, by denying my love for him, then I would say you have chosen the hardest test of them all, the one I was bound to fail from the beginning. But if”—and Yoel stopped to look at Joseph—“if you mean to show me that this is my true path, that you have brought us together to love one another, why did you make me a teacher? Why give me the ability to understand your words with such clarity and to help others know you, too? Why did you give us wives and families?”
Joseph thought that God was there, looking at Yoel at eye level. He wanted to cover himself, but just then Yoel removed the last stitch of clothing from his own body and stood naked, towering above him. Joseph looked him over, everywhere but his face, the one part of Yoel he knew at all. He felt Yoel’s body was familiar, though, just as he had imagined, and so Joseph relaxed. Yoel bent down and lifted Joseph from the sofa then carried him to a soft rug and stood him there, kneeling in front of him. He removed the last of Joseph’s clothing and Joseph looked to the clock on the mantelpiece, as if to record this moment in his own personal history.
Yoel sat back on his heels, gazing at Joseph, then pulled him close and began kissing him, first as he had before, then with increasing vigor. His touch was no longer light, but openly insistent, desirous. He hugged Joseph around the waist and eased him down, kissing everywhere his lips reached. He lay back and drew Joseph with him, then rolled over on top of him. They pressed themselves to one another as if to bind themselves together for security against all the dangers of the world, or perhaps as protection from an angry, jealous, and vengeful God. But mostly they delighted in their bodies freely and wholly, each surprised at the insistence of his own, each pleased with the passion of the other’s. At one point Joseph thought he felt tectonic plates clicking into place beneath him and the alignment of the stars and planets above him, as if the whole universe were falling into its rightful place just as he and Yoel were finding theirs. They fell asleep together enmeshed, and woke together that way, too.
“What were you doing that whole time I was translating? It seemed like hours that you left me there.”
Yoel released his grip on Joseph, rolled onto his back, and said to the ceiling, “I was praying in a tiny room at the top of the house, begging God for some guidance, some wisdom. Strength to fight this. I recited psalms and medieval
and the confessional portion of the Yom Kippur service and a few incantations I learned from a sixth-century kabbalistic text. I strung together whatever seemed relevant.” He took a deep, steadying breath. “And after I don’t know how long I asked myself what I wanted to happen, what I really wanted. And from the noisy jumble in my head the answer came as clear as the blast of a ram’s horn: Joseph. I want your beauty. I want your mind. I want your friendship.” He paused, quieter now. “I have never thought this about another human being, but I want your body and I want your soul. I crave you.”
He pulled Joseph in close, and Joseph nuzzled into the soft fur of his chest. “I don’t know whether this was showing appreciation for a most marvelous and wondrous creation of God’s or the opposite, idol worship,” Yoel whispered languorously into his ear, filling him with fresh desire, “but I felt words of prayer and thanks on my lips the whole night. Blessings and songs of praise for the beauty God has created in his world. Yehuda HaLevi must have composed this one, nearly nine hundred years ago, with you in mind: ‘With all the delights of the world I will ransom / The night when my lust was fulfilled / By the gazelle of loveliness, and I scraped / From his lips the flowing wine of his vineyard / And kissed his ruddy cheeks.’”
Joseph rolled to his side and wrapped Yoel’s arms around himself. “And I was thinking that I never live in the present—mostly in the future and occasionally in the past, but never in the present. But last night I was nowhere but here, the whole night, completely and totally with you.”
Yoel murmured agreement, but Joseph felt him stiffen. “And now it’s the day after and we will dress and go to our endeavors and the doubts will creep in, and the guilt. And the guilt will last until the next time we meet, when we have begun to wonder, begun to know, in our separate prisons, that we have crossed a dangerous boundary into a country that demands too much of citizens like us—shame and abhorrence followed by complete repentance, or the shattering of our lives as we know them.” He said this with such matter-of-factness that Joseph at first thought he was joking. “Time will tell if the power of our love and attraction is enough to sustain us in place of our relationships with God.”
“Why ‘in place of’?” asked Joseph weakly, fearing the answer and the whole discussion. “Can’t we love one another
Yoel propped himself up on one elbow and looked into Joseph’s face. “No, my friend. The question is not whether we can love him, but whether he can love us, and if the humans he has created in his own image can love us. And the answer is a clear no on both accounts. Now let’s shower and dress and eat breakfast and start trying to continue living our old lives with our new knowledge.” He stood up and offered a hand to Joseph, embracing him as he rose to his feet.
“We must always be there for one another, no matter how awful it gets,” he said, and Joseph, deciding not to wonder how awful that might be, planted his feet resolutely in the present.
Joseph and Yoel continued to communicate and meet as often as possible, usually at the apartment of Yoel’s in-laws. In particular, there were four Friday mornings, maybe five, when they worked together to decipher several marvelously sensuous poems penned by the great rabbis of medieval Spain. On the last of those Fridays, as they walked together to the apartment, Yoel took each long, shallow stair leading down through the
at Jaffa Gate in one extended stride, while Joseph broke them up into a left-right rhythm. He wished to stroll there with Yoel, to absorb all the sensations, but they were rushed for time, with less than three hours for studying, chatting, lovemaking, eating, showering. He wished they could pore over the handiwork of the hammered-gold tea trays, carved olive-wood boxes, and tiled backgammon sets. He especially wished they could explore the spice shops, their pungent aromas spilling out into the covered alleys and mingling with the mint leaves of the shopkeepers’ tea and the donkey droppings that dotted the cobblestone walkways. Had he known how little time was left to them he would have dashed through the
, ignoring all sights and sounds and smells. He would barely have contained himself until they had locked the front door behind them and he could press himself into Yoel’s flesh in an attempt to make them one.
All of their meetings included certain rituals, beginning with Joseph’s offering: fresh pita bread and sour cream or mint leaves from Rebecca’s garden or a page of questions from his research jotted in haste then recopied in a legible hand. Yoel brought appetite and answers. They would sit facing one another, close but not touching, to catch up on day-to-day matters: news, their children and wives, health, books. Then, as if on cue, they would come together for lovemaking, sometimes slow and careful, other times in a passionate frenzy.
On that last Friday, Joseph presented Yoel with his most special possession: a small, imperfect antique jug of aquamarine glass salvaged from the sea and pocketed by his childhood friend Arik, who had given it to Joseph to thank him for endless hours spent helping him pass his matriculation exams.
“It’s about fifteen hundred years old, probably from Qastra.”
The jug was dwarfed by Yoel’s massive hands. Holding it from the bottom, he carried it to a window and opened a shutter to catch the light. A band of shells and chips of colored glass girding the center of the jug shone like a jeweled halo. Yoel was silent for a moment, then turned toward Joseph and recited, in a choked whisper, the blessing over objects of beauty:
“Blessed are you, o lord our God, king of the universe, who has
such in his universe.
It is beautiful beyond words, Joseph, but you are more so.”
Joseph stood riveted. He did not wish to move from this time or place. He thought he might cry or shout or ascend to heaven from sheer happiness. Instead he went to the window, rested his head on Yoel’s shoulder, and gazed with him at their treasure.
It was also on that Friday, the last of those unforgettable Fridays, their final meeting, that they did, in fact, for the first time become one. Joseph felt as if the chasm at the very center of his being had been filled with Yoel’s love, and he rejoiced in his newfound wholeness and contentment.
So deeply satisfied was he with their newly enriched relationship that it suddenly became clear to him that it was now time to leave home and start anew, and so absorbed was he in this realization that he failed to taste the bitter drops of anguish on his lover’s lips.
The next evening, after nightfall had converted the holy Sabbath into an ordinary weekday, Joseph—still riding the wave of wholeness and contentment he had caught with Yoel on Friday morning—left his home and family and settled into a new life in the first flat he found, two bare white-washed Tel Aviv rooms with a sofa bed, a collapsible table, one chair, a radio, a small and noisy refrigerator, and a single gas burner. In the days that followed, as Joseph slid from nervous hopefulness to quiet panic, he experienced a churning dread in his stomach that he preferred to attribute to approaching meetings with lawyers and an accountant, meetings that would annoy him with their pursuit of bother-some details and the embarrassment of intimate questions. Worse still, Joseph had been unable to make contact with Yoel since he had left Rebecca and the boys, left home.
On the third morning of his new life, Joseph was cutting slices from a loaf of bread when the seven o’clock news began. He was pouring boiling water from a kettle over powdered coffee and a half teaspoon of sugar during the first item, about a foiled terrorist attack in central Jerusalem, and by the third he was reaching, bent at the waist over the tiny refrigerator, for an open carton of milk.
Popular Jerusalem rabbi Yoel
Rosenzweig was found dead in a pool of blood and glass in an
apartment in the Old City before dawn this morning. No details
are being released but police have opened a full-scale investigation.
Rabbi Rosenzweig, thirty-five, was born and educated in the capital.
His lectures, writings, and televised weekly Torah portion lesson
drew a very large following. The day and hour of the funeral
will be announced upon completion of the police investigation.
The carton landed upright with only a splash of milk beside it. Joseph landed upright, too, on his knees, his legs suddenly unable to support him. The radio announcer droned on, the refrigerator hummed and clanked as before, but Joseph heard a heavy door of thick metal slam shut some-where. After a while—a few minutes? an hour? —he crawled across the floor to his sofa bed, dragged himself up onto it, and stayed there, curled on his side, for most of the day.
In the first terrible days that followed it was all he could do to make himself continue living. He had no appetite but he took tiny bites of dry crackers with cottage cheese. He had no desire to breathe fresh air or see other human beings but he made himself take a walk around his new city block each evening at dusk. His whole being had gone numb, his voice fell into disuse, and he was surprised to find himself whole and healthy each morning as the sun screamed through his curtainless windows.
Three days later, on a Friday morning, Joseph’s father came to find him. It was hot and dry that day, the sun lolling in a bed of burning haze. Joseph did not rise from his bed at the sound of knocking, but he had not locked the door in days and his father entered on his own. Joseph had not changed clothes or shaved or washed since hearing the news of Yoel’s death, and he rolled toward the wall at the arrival of this dreaded visitor.
Manfred stood in the middle of the room saying nothing at first, his full attention on his only son’s spartan apartment. He moved to the window, which overlooked a parking lot, and spoke from there, as if in time with a metronome. “Well, I see you’ve done quite well for yourself here. But it’s time to come home, while we’ll still have you.”
In the days that seemed like months since he had come to Tel Aviv, decimated by loneliness and fear, terrified by a choice gone wrong, strangled by the silence and unmeasured time that were now his, Joseph’s fevered mind had again and again carried him back to Sde Hirsch. He knew he could rouse him-self from this bed, step out into the land of sun and shade and people and life, and board a bus for his moshav. He knew his wife would accept him back without words, bruised but not broken. His father would greet him without comment. His boys would whoop and gather around him, all eager to be the first hugged. He could resume his life, sleep in his bed again, stroll in the citrus groves of his youth, smell the scent of fresh hanging laundry as it snapped in the sea breeze from the west. He could look forward to pomegranates ripening into full blush under pointed crowns, their bloodred seeds eager to spill into the impending new year. It was all there for him to choose, a life waiting for his selection like a closet of clothes to be worn one day at a time until his death.
And only then, for the first time, did Joseph know he would not return to that life, even without Yoel.