Authors: Meir Shalev
The next day another vehicle arrived at the moshava, carrying members of the Sephardic burial society from Jerusalem. The chairman and secretary of the committee accompanied them to the cemetery and showed them the grave of Nahum Natan. The bereaved father had not come with them, unwilling and unable to see the bones of his son and certainly not the skull blown apart by a bullet from a rifle, nor did anyone else from the moshava come either.
The men dug, uncovered, gathered, wrapped, and raised the bones of Nahum and brought them to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where he is buried to this day beside his mother, grandmother, uncle, and grandfather. His father, the eminent rabbi Eliyahu Natan, stood during the burial and looked at the small plot that awaited him too, not knowing that he would not be buried there. And it came to pass that a few years later he relocated from Istanbul to Cairo, and two decades thereafter, in fullness of years and memories, he died. In his last will and testament he again invoked the biblical Joseph and quoted his request: “You shall carry up my bones from here”âfrom Egypt to the Land of Israel, to the family plot in Jerusalem.
But the State of Israel had been established by then, and the cemetery on the Mount of Olives was outside its border. Rabbi Eliyahu Natan was therefore buried in Cairo, and many years later, when it was possible to bring him to the Mount of Olives, there was no one who remembered his request or anyone who would assume the expenses entailed in fulfilling it.
And his son, Nahum, is also forgotten. No one visits his grave on the Mount of Olives, and his house and land at the moshava changed hands at higher and higher prices, until it was purchased several years ago by Haim Maslina, the grandson of Yitzhak Maslina who gave false testimony and received a pair of excellent work boots and an excellent Dutch cow, pregnant by an excellent Dutch bull.
Here you are. We said four o'clock and Varda shows up at four on the dot. To see the nakedness of the moshava, to investigate and excavate. How are you? Are you hungry? Thirsty? You missed me? Just kidding. Please sit. I have an hour and a half, and then, if you like, you can come with me to a parents' meeting and see me in action. We may begin. First question.
What was the family name before Tavori?
Before Tavori we were Tversky. I'm told this is a prestigious name, but my great-grandfather wanted a Land of Israel name to replace the name of exile and changed it to Tavori. It sounds a bit like Tversky, and Mount Tavor was in the neighborhood. I love them both, the mountain and its name. The mountain is uniquely beautiful, like a breast full of milk, like a belly in the seventh month. And Tavor is a unique name, predating the Hebrew language that adopted it.
Grandpa Ze'ev, who was born and grew up nearby, told his grandchildren, Dovik and me, that for many years after he left the Galilee and came here, he missed that view of the Tavor. He'd look upward and was surprised every timeâWhere is it? Where'd it disappear to? I didn't grow up near the Tavor. I was born in Tel Aviv and grew up here in the moshava, but some of that stuck to me too. I kept the name Tavori even after Eitan and I got married. I hadn't told you his name? Sorry. Eitan is my husband. My first husband and also my second husband.
Interesting that they both have the same name, no?
Yes, Varda, it's very interesting. And what's even more interesting is that they're also the same person. But never mind that now. You'll understand later on. What's important is that I kept my family name. Eitan was Eitan Druckman and I stayed Ruta Tavori. It wasn't popular then like now, a woman keeping her family name. I raised many eyebrows, and not for the first time. I'm telling you, Varda, if raising eyebrows were an Olympic sport, I would bring great honor to the State of Israel. The contestants enter the stadium, each one does his thing, the number of raised eyebrows in the crowd is counted, and, as the whole moshava knew in advance: first place, RuthâpauseâTavori, Israel! Come get the medal, national anthem, “Hatikvah,” drumroll please, the blue-and-white flag is hoisted, a sea of tears and glory. I will place one hand on my chest, like the American athletes do, and a single tear will trickle down the winning cheek. I'm good at tears, I have lots of practice and it shows.
Whatever. I kept my name. I didn't want a new name, and I also can't stand the custom of married women lugging an oversize load of two family names. If you're an independent woman, do what I did: keep your family name and that's it. Eitan, by the way, didn't mind at all. The opposite. He said, I fell in love with Ruta Tavori, so I don't want any Ruth Druckman instead. And he didn't stop there. Soon enough he changed his last name to my family name. From Eitan Druckman to Eitan Tavori. At first he introduced himself as Tavori only as a joke, another one of his jokes: “Eitan Tavori, my pleasure.” Then adding: “You have no idea how much pleasure.” I see you're smiling, yes, he was a very funny guy back then, and I was a very good audience for his wisecracks.
To make a long story short, one day he got up and went to the Ministry of the Interior and officially changed his last name to my last name. Dovik said to him, “What's gotten into you, Eitan? Are you crazy?” But I actually liked it. I told him that I saw it as a unique sort of romance. And you know what he said? He said, “This time it's not you I'm romancing, it's Grandpa Ze'ev, he's the top Tavori around here. Not you.” But to me this was downright romantic. He knew how to romance and loved to romance, but I sometimes felt that in his romantic theater I wasn't always the character who was romanced, that sometimes I was the stage on which he could mount his productions.
Birthdays, for example. In general, birthdays are of more interest to women than to men, but my first husband remembered every one of my birthdays, made it special, made an effort, invented things, and on each of those birthdays he would tack a sign on the wall:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY RUTA, THERE ARE SO-AND-SO MANY
âand the number would change, fifteen, fourteen, thirteenâ
YEARS TILL YOUR FORTIETH BIRTHDAY
. And on every birthday I would laugh, God, how I used to laugh with him then, in those days, and ask, “Why are you so hung up on forty?”
“That's the age I love. The age I want you to be already.”
“Forty? I still have the skin of a teenager and you want wrinkles? Gray hair is what you want? Good thing I have small tits that will always hold up.”
And he insisted: “I always wanted a woman of forty, and I'm willing to wait.”
“So why didn't you marry a woman of forty and be done with it?”
He laughed. “Because I wanted you. I saw in you how great you'd be when you finally got there. You were a long-term investment.”
“And in the meantime? Are you suffering?”
“Suffering a lot,” he said. “Suffering but looking forward with hope. Fortyward.”
You get it? I'm the one who reads books and teaches Bible, and he, who barely graduated high school, my wild uneducated ignoramus, trumped me with that “fortyward” of his.
“Forty is not a nice number,” I told him. “It spells only trouble: the forty days of the Flood, forty years wandering in the desert, âforty more days and Nineveh shall be destroyed.' Besides, what will happen at age forty plus one day? Forty and a half? You won't want me anymore?”
“Don't talk nonsense. Just like it doesn't happen in one day, it doesn't disappear in one day. Just like there was something fortyish in you when I first laid eyes on you at sixteen and a half, there'll be plenty left for years thereafter.”
People would say to me: “How he keeps courting you all the time, such a charming husband you have.” And alsoâI'm imitating themâ“He's so charming, it's obvious how much he loves you.” I can't stand that word, “charming.” You can't read a book or newspaper these days without that clichÃ© in all its permutations. Eitan wasn't that at all; he was more like alluring, luring everyone into his net without even casting it, or maybe captivating, with all the hearts he captured that didn't want to be set free. Don't misunderstandâmost of those captive hearts were men, men of all shapes and sizes, rich and poor, young and old, friends and customers, one and all in his thrall.
Whatever. Eitan also wanted, on the festive occasion of his official change from Druckman to Tavori, for me to come with him and officially change my name from Ruth to Ruta, but I didn't go. I hate bureaucracy and filling out forms, and I don't care what's written on my identity card. “You call me Ruta, and that's enough,” I said, “and I also come when you call me, no?”
And what did you call him?
Did I hear correctly? Can it be that you're also not focused on the history of the Yishuv?
Tell me anyhow.
You mean a nickname? There wasn't any. I called him Eitan and introduced him as “my man.” Today “man” is the politically correct alternative to “husband,” but in the Bible that I teach, the most chauvinist book imaginable, the book that fit my grandfather to a tee, if he had bothered to read itâ“my man” appears many times instead of “my husband.” Funny. There are people here in the moshava who heard me saying “my man” and asked if I had become a feminist.
Me? Are you crazy? I just like the word for “my man,”
It's personal and sounds the same as
my fire, which fit Eitan well, with his bonfires that died out and cooking coals that stopped sizzling, with the glowing skin of his that grew white and pale as a result of the disaster. Can I pour you some water too? My head's a mess, my heart is destroyed, but I somehow remember to preserve my throat.
Whatever. We were in the middle of Eitan, so let's continue. Even before he formally changed his name to Tavori, we felt he was more of a Tavori than many real Tavoris. Dovik, my big brother, who discovered him and brought him to us, said, “He's just like us. It would seem that not only Grandma Ruth but also Grandpa Ze'ev got laid on the side and Eitan is his illegitimate grandson.” I hope you understand, that's not my style. I don't speak like that, but I'm imitating Dovik.
So it's true that Eitan was a Tavori, one of us, but he was also very different. Like a family member who came back after many years. I remember how we had just started dating and I felt he was like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle fitting into place. At first in spirit, later also with his body. He wasn't my first. I had a little fling in the army. A little thing in every way, if you get my drift, and, after that, with a lecturer at the university, whom I got back at by calling Quickie DickâI see you're smiling again, that's good, you also ran into him? Which of us girls hasn't had pointless affairs like that? We all have. Even in the moshavot of the Baron. But then, our first time, mine and Eitan's, when I was filled with him, I knew this was exactly what my body had waited for and wanted to stay with.
Should I continue? Because this isn't really the sort of gender issue you are researching, and maybe inappropriate for the second conversation of two women who only just met. Yes? Thank you. I suddenly realize how complex that simple biblical phrase is, “and they shall become one flesh,” and what a genius the writer was, because “one flesh” is a wonderful idiom, perhaps even better than what it describes. And if you asked me as a teacher, I would say that “one flesh” is a much better combination than “one God.” It's not just a matter of style, but it's the idea: two equal one. Maybe this is why I'm a Bible teacher and not a math teacher. Because in math one plus one equals one is an error, and in the Bible it's true. That's how it should be. One flesh. Everything in its place. Organized as it should be.
It's funny. From our childhood, Dovik's and mine, Grandpa always told us how important it was to be organized, to put everything in its place: work tools and kitchen utensils, writing implements and schoolbooks, short pants and long ones, shirts and underwear, winter and summer, each in its drawer. He had a line that used to make us laugh: “Moshe, Shlomo, every man
” in his place. It's not only right and useful; it's also nice. And that was my feeling from the first time with Eitanâthat this is what we were for each other, the place where each of us should be. The perfect fit, the fullness, joined together without a gap or barrier. In short, one flesh.
You seem shocked, Varda. Is it because I'm talking this way or because it hasn't yet happened to you? I hope it will happen; you're still young. And then you'll remember me and say, “That crazy teacher from the moshava, the one who didn't shut up and didn't contribute one useful fact to my research, I can't remember her name, but she was right.” And the guy you'll be with then will say, “Who're you talking to, Vardush?” And you'll tell him, “To myself, honey”âyou'll surely call him honey; girls whose guys call them Vardush call their guys honeyâ“to myself, honey, I'm talking to myself, I'm reporting to myself that something important is happening here.” And you'll also say, “If a girl who's with a guy talks to herself out loud, it's a sign that she's relaxed and satisfied and in a good mood.”
Okay, enough with that. I see I have no one to get down and dirty with. Let's go back to Eitan and how we were all happily at his mercy. He came to us the way David came to the house of King Saul. I know, because I know them both. I never stop teaching David and I never stop studying Eitan. Eitan too could be violent, even dangerous, beneath his alluring exterior, but he wasn't wickedly manipulative like David. To fling a stone into Goliath's forehead and cut off his head? No problem. Eitan would also be happy and able to do that. But to place Uriah the Hittite on the front lines of battle and leave him there to be killedâthat's only David. And Eitan would not kill two hundred Philistines to collect their foreskins. Because everyone who met him, myself included, would have given him their foreskin voluntarily.
Okay, I see that you're not only grossed out, you also have no idea what I'm talking about, so let's drop it. What's important about Eitan is that we all fell in love with him, and he wasn't surprised and didn't object. He saw how goodly were Grandpa and Dovik and how pleasing was Ruta, and began the adoption process. And an interesting thing happened: it was indeed Dovik who found him and brought him to us, and it was I who married him, but the one bound to him with the thickest rope was Grandpa Ze'ev, and that happened very quickly. Dovik was jealous; I was surprised: on one hand the toughest man in the family, our black basalt rock, and on the other hand Eitanâa dancing sunbeam, a darting hornet, a butterfly in the breeze. But there was also something elemental in both of them, real, primitive, Neanderthal in the good sense of the word.
I remember: When Grandpa Ze'ev took Dovik and me to the big carob in his wadi and told us about the caveman who lived next door and the cavewoman, that's what he called her, and the fire they lit, he said that he was a simple man with a simple life, who competed with other cavemen for territory and a woman and a cave, for water and food, not for honor or God. Everything was with rocks, he declared. And reallyâwhat's simpler than a rock? They cut with a rock, peeled with a rock, cracked bones open with a rockâwhen necessary, picked up a rock and smashed a rival in the head. There's even a word for it, “to bash,” which is more than just to break. It's to destroy. As Grandma Ruth used to say, once in a while, “I'm bashed and broken.”
I'm certain, by the way, that Grandpa Ze'ev would have gotten along wonderfully with those cavemen. There are things that only men like him could fully grasp, men of his generation, who were the proverbial bereaved bear and also the lone bird upon a roof, the unmuzzled ox treading out the grain, and the deer longing for streams of water. I remember once, in one of those communal singing sessions I was roped into, a woman started singing the old song about girls with ponytails and pinafores, and another woman made a joke about boys with ponytails and mustaches, and everybody laughed, because it was true. You're also allowed to laugh, Varda. Don't hold back, that was funny.