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    Just a story

    Wednesday, November 7, 2007, 3:38 AM [General]

    I have published a number of short stories in Hebrew - I translated this one and am happy to share it.

    Acquire a Friend for Yourself -

    Pirkei Avot

     

      

    The hour was late and a pleasantly cool Elul breeze was blowing on Yoel’s neck as he made his way home alone. Most of the residents of the Rehavia neighborhood were barricaded in their houses, and the sounds of music and the squawking of televisions sliced through the Jerusalem night. Yoel thought with contentment of those who awaited him: his wife, his sleeping children and dinner. The days of the Selihot prayers were about to begin, and Yoel hummed to himself “The soul is Yours, and the body is of Your making, have mercy on Your own work….”. He saw himself, dressed in a white kittel and wrapped in a tallit, stand before the Holy Ark pouring out his heart before his Creator. The congregation would take pleasure in his clear voice, in the pure melody and the fiery words that break down all the barriers between Israel and their Father in Heaven.

    Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted; an aged Jew stood before him, short of stature and bent, with a ragged black hat on his head and a flowing snowy beard .

    “My dear sir – would you like to purchase a commentary on Pirkei Avot? I am the author.” The two stood next to Assaf Square, and by the light of the street lamp, which serves as the main part of the square, the old man showed his commentary to Yoel.

    The bookshelves in Yoel’s house were full of holy books, among them commentaries to Pirkei Avot.  Even so, it was not nice to refuse an elderly man and Torah scholar, and the ‘I am the author.’ It was likely that the man had published the book with his own money and hoped to cover the printing costs by selling door to door. After numerous refusals, he rejoiced to see a man with a kippa in the street.

    Yea outweighed nay, and Yoel reached into his pocket to take out the “symbolic payment” that the author had stipulated, fifteen shekels. But behold – he found nothing in his pocket. Neither bill nor coin, the shape of a coin nor its shadow.

    The book’s author suggested that Yoel take the book and send him a check in the mail when he arrived home. The address was written on the fly-page.

    “But please – do not forget. So that I should not be beset by worry.”

    Yoel understood the elderly Jew and saw him in his mind’s eye, sitting in his meager apartment, waiting to receive the check. But there was no cause for apprehension – Yoel would not forget.

    Yoel’s grandfather had a saying, and the words yet resounded in the grandson’s ears, even after two decades since the grandfather had passed away: “Az m’koyft, m’daft batzollen.”  If you buy you have to pay.

    His grandfather was an amazingly honest person, stingy with words and uncompromising; his stubbornness was famous among those that surrounded him. Tall and blue-eyed, he seemed harsh but he loved his family fiercely and helped the next person without keeping accounts. He would proclaim his saying with determination, almost aggressively, morning and evening, as though he were bringing a new message to the world.  Little Yoel found this saying difficult to understand – whenever he bought candy, a notebook or a pencil, he would pay on the spot. The equation of purchase with payment was crystal clear to him. How can you buy without paying? The years passed, and Yoel learned that his grandfather’s saying remained a novel sort of notion to many.

    “Thanks – and you’ll receive the check soon, G-d willing,” said Yoel, parting company with the elderly man and placing the book under his arm.

     

    When Yoel arrived home, the children were already asleep, as expected. Moriah, his wife, was half sitting, half lying on the couch. A tired smile flitted across her round face. In the seventh month of her pregnancy’ her strength had ebbed as night came.

    “I managed to make a bit of dinner and put the kids to sleep. Then the fuel ran out.”

    “Besides that, how do you feel?”

    “Completely exhausted, thank G-d. They say it’s a good sign. Hezki called. He wants to speak with you.”

    Yoel caressed her tender cheek . “Can I bring you something to drink?”

    “No, no thanks. But if you could tidy up the kitchen a bit … I just can’t get up now.”

    “Maybe you’ll go to sleep? I’ll take care of the kitchen.” Yoel kissed her pale forehead, gently as a feather.

    “Yoeli?”

    “Yes, darling.”

    “You got a bad deal.”

    “What?!”

    “You thought you were marrying a ‘beriah’ and you got me. And a heap of dirty dishes in a messy kitchen.”

    “I got the love of my life. Why should I mind cleaning up a little?”

    “You don’t mind? But don’t forget to call Hezki……” nearly dozing, Moriah got up and trudged slowly towards the bedroom.

     

    Complete and utter chaos greeted Yoel in the kitchen. Moriah had indeed managed to make a bit of food, but she had not succeeded in tidying up at all. To Yoel's delight, a pot of soup was bubbling on the cook top, and nearby all the evidence of its preparation: pieces of vegetables and their peelings, a cutting board and knives. Even the used plates remained in their places, mute testimony to what had occurred, like the last days of Pompey before the volcano erupted. Evidently, four-year-old Talia did not especially like the soup, and Dvir, two, preferred to spill his on the table, the seat and even on the floor. Additional dishes left their imprint on the environs: an omelet, salad and baked potatoes.

    Methodically and calculatedly, Yoel cleared the table and set his place before he began his work. Fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right, he sat down and ate what he could find to gather strength for the task at hand. After he recited the blessing after the meal, he started on his project.

    First of all, replace the various products to their proper cupboard, wiping them on the way. Afterwards, toss the refuse into the trash. The next step was to wash the dishes and pots and wipe down surfaces. Then put the leftovers into the refrigerator. As he worked he hummed cantorial airs of the Days of Awe.

    Yoel preferred order over its reverse, as opposed to his wife who did things in a flurry of activity, and left pandemonium in her wake. Moriah would have returned Hezki's call as she washed the dishes. Yoel couldn't stand the thought of speaking with the clank of dishes in the background. Nevertheless, that noise did provide him with a "cover" to raise his voice in singing "Behold! Like the clay in the hands of the potter, if he so desires he expands or shortens, so we are in Your hands, keeper of kindness…." .

    A while later, after the undertaking was properly executed, Yoel called his friend, Hezki.

    "Hezki? How are you? What's up?"

    Yoel was exceedingly fond of Hezki. The two of them had studied in yeshiva together, served together in the army and now they were neighbors; their children were in nursery and kindergarten together, their wives were friends.

    On many occasions Yoel had succeeded in rescuing Hezki from several somewhat awkward situations, and when Yoel was wounded during his army service it was Hezki who sat besides him and supported him. Yoel never forgot.

    "Do you have a few minutes for me, Yoel? I want to come over and talk with you about something, if it won't bother Moriah and you…."

    "Come over, already. I'm making coffee. Don't ring the bell, Moriah is already asleep."

    Hezki arrived before Yoel had a chance to boil water. A few black curls tickled his brow, and blue sparks danced in his eyes. All he needed was a youth movement shirt to look like a counselor. He had the mischievousness of youth and joie de vivre, and a loving and giving heart. Hezki looked up to Yoel, - his honesty, his talents and his diligence. And Yoel loved Hezki like one loves a younger brother. Like one loves the rays of the sun on a winter day. Like one loves the days of youth.

    The two chatted about this and that, but Yoel noted that Hezki was holding back his words and not getting to the point.

    "What's on your heart, brother? Spill it, spill it out!"  He entreated his friend, and drew upon the vocabulary of years gone by.

    "You know my father …"

    "I see him almost every day in Shul, no? How is he?"

    "Stable, stable. They say that at his age the disease spreads slowly. He's not really in any pain. But there's not much time left."

    "I didn't know he was ill. I'm sorry to hear. How can I help?"

    Hezki gathered his courage and said, "I want to daven Kol Nidrei this year."

    Yoel looked at him in amazement and confusion. Why? How? Hezki rarely served as Chazan on weekdays and Shabbat – What connection did he have to Kol Nidrei?

    From the beginning of the year until its end, Yoel dwelled in the glorious shadow of the prayers of the Days of Awe. He had "first right" of chanting Kol Nidrei every year in the "Achay V'Re'ay" synagogue in Rehavia, and dedicated a good deal of time to preparing for this, spiritually and mentally. And here his friend was asking that he relinquish what was as dear to him as the apple of his eye.

    And Hezki knew all this. He said quietly, as if he were revealing a secret, "I want my father to appreciate me," and he said no more.

    Yoel knew better than to make empty claims, whether Hezki were right or mistaken. There can be no argument with the logic of the heart. But how can this sweet fellow be transformed into a cantor in just a month? 'He who decreed that oil should burn can say the same to vinegar,' he thought to himself.

    Hezki wanted to say "You aren't under any obligation." But he knew his friend well. Yoel was indebted to Hezki and debts have to be paid on the spot.

    "You'll be a wonderful Chazan," pronounced Yoel and hoped that he would not regret it too much.

    If Yoel's heart were not already conquered territory, Hezki would have conquered it easily with his broad grin.

    Hezki, whose hands were always busy, began to flip through the pages of "Pirkei Avot" that was lying on the table. He remembered what was written there about the love between David and Jonathan , love that was not dependent on any ulterior motive. Yoel saw the book and remembered the old man who sold him the fine commentary and his grandfather who used to say: "Az m'koyft, m'daft batzollen."- if you buy, you have to pay. Quickly, Yoel went over to the desk and took out his checkbook, an envelope and a stamp. He told Hezki what happened and the latter was happy that he had a friend who kept his word. "Blessed is he who says and does," said Hezki.

    From the next day on, Hezki and Yoel had an evening session, like in yeshiva. Yoel prepared cassettes and Hezki walked around with a tape recorder and earphones listening to them. Yoel didn't try to teach his friend ambitious tunes or operatic cantorial pieces, just the traditional melodies and the tunes that are pleasant for all. But doubt assailed him.

    "But Yoel, maybe it isn't this a bit of a show? Maybe it isn't proper for me to lead the prayers to make an impression on my father?"

    Yoel opened his reply with a cantorial air: "'Even though I am unworthy…..'  If you live the words, if they are in your soul, and you still feel that you are unworthy of saying them, if you can pray in joy and with a broken heart at the same time – you are worthy. Who would be more worthy than you?"

    "You," said Hezki simply.

    "Only technically or musically. There's no one who is more ‘pleasing to his fellow-men’ than you. I know – I have the receipts."

    Rosh HaShanah passed and came the ten days of repentance. Additional doubts were raised by Hezki. "Maybe you should lead the prayers in any case. …They know you. They like the way you daven. They'll compare us and feel that they've missed out."

    "Look – you really think that they remember from one year to the next? Our congregation isn't so stable. The old-timers are happy to see the young people lead the service and the young people change over every couple of years."

    The synagogue was an old Rehavia institution. It was founded by Jews who had left Germany – refugees who had gone up to the Land of Israel in the thirties. They brought with them the customs of Frankfurt and Hamburg, but only a handful of the original congregants remained. Young religious families filled in the empty places and tried to revitalized the synagogue, but the customs of Germany were not for them. Every now and then there were complaints about the neglect of old customs and changes in the liturgy, but these were silenced by one of the oldest of the original members, Mr. Hollander who said in his Yecke accent:

    "'Do not say that what was in the early days is better than what is today, for it is not from wisdom that you have asked this.' The early days are gone, and we are dinosaurs. It is not for us to dictate to the younger generation and to press upon them customs that they do not know. It is sufficient to keep what is written in the Shulchan Aruch." And the complaints subsided.

    What had begun as a surrender out of a lack of choice became a challenge to Yoel and a cherished goal. Hezki was a diligent student and his natural ear for music helped him absorb. His voice was pleasant, if not especially developed. Yoel paid his debt, coin by coin, until the sum was significant. If Hezki didn't turn into a Chazan, he did become a Ba'al Tefillah, a prayer leader, who knew the traditional tunes and recited the prayers from the depth of his heart. And not a word did he reveal to his father.

     

     

    On the eve of the Holy Day, as Hezki put on his white clothing and cloth shoes, the telephone rang.

    "Hezki" I wanted to give you a blessing before Yom Kippur."

    "Abba? But we'll see each other in a little while in Shul. You can give me a blessing there."

    "Not exactly. Right now I'm hospitalized at 'Bikkur Holim'. I'm fine, but there's a problem with my blood count, and the doctors decided that I should be under observation. So I'm here."

    "Abba – I'll be there in a few minutes' and I'll daven with you there. Shalom."

    "Don't bother, Hezki…" But Hezki had already set down the receiver in order to hurry to the hospital.

    After he parted from his wife and his children with a hurried blessing, he raced to the hospital so as to arrive before the onset of Yom Kippur.

    During the short trip he called Yoel to explain that, in the end, he would lead the prayers.

    "Do you think that you're up to it?"

    "Thanks to the rehearsals with you, somehow I'll manage. But I'll miss you. And next year, G-d willing …."

    "Yoel?"

    "What, brother?"

    "I owe you."

    "And I owe you a lot more. A speedy recovery to your father – and a good year to you and your family."

     

    On the eve of Yom Kippur the center of town was deserted. Hezki found parking near the hospital and made his way to the old and impressive structure at a run. Over the main entrance a soaring dove was engraved in stone, a memory of the hospital's early years as a Christian institution. Opposite, on the other side of Strauss Street, the twelve tribes, goats and the seven species decorated the bronze doors of the newer wing. None of this did Hezki see, since he was pressed to get to his father.

    He found his father walking to and fro in the small room, dressed in holiday clothes and slippers.

    "Abba, why are you dressed? Lie down in bed and rest!"

    "After a hundred and twenty years I'll have plenty of time to lie down and rest. I feel fine. The doctor said that I can go to Shul and even fast if I want. Don't worry. I'm 'under observation' – as long as I stay in hospital, I can do what I want. And now I want to go to Shul."

    "Maybe you’ll have a cup of tea before the fast? I'll make one for you."

    "If I drink any more I'll float."

    "Promise me that if you don't feel well you'll tell the nurse?"

    “I promise. The nurse and whomever else will listen. Will you come with me to Kol Nidrei or will you go home? “

    It was clear that Hezki would remain in the hospital and walk home and then return the next day.

    “Come Hezki, I want to give you a blessing before we go.”

    The son approached his father and bent his head. Very gently, almost without touching Hezki’s curls, his father lifted his hands, parchment pale, to bless him. “Yesimcha…. Yivarechecha …. Yehi ratzon ….. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good and long life amongst the righteous of Israel.”

    As he concluded his blessing, the father kissed his son’s forehead and caressed his cheek. Hezki kissed his father’s hand and his eyes were damp.

    “Hezki, Hezki…. How glad and proud I am to have a son like you. … You know that ‘not a man of words am I’ – I left the talking to your mother, may she rest in peace. And now I’m just an old Yecke, who doesn’t know how to say what I ought to say. But you understand what is in my heart.”

    “I understand, Abba. I always understood – but I didn’t know that I understood. Should we go now?”

    “Let’s go.” They exited through the hospital gates and crossed the street to reach the synagogue. Many people were streaming towards the synagogues, tranquilly with an admixture of tension. Jews dressed in white kittelach, Jews in white shirts, women wearing white dresses and white headscarves. Like brides and grooms. Like infants in swaddling clothes. Like the dead in their shrouds.

    The synagogue was small and old-fashioned. Not neglected, but as though time had frozen years before. The walls were covered with memorial tablets that bore dates from fifty and seventy five years ago. A snowy curtain covered the Ark, and it was embroidered with the words “Purify yourselves before G-d.” The congregation was made up of patients and their doctors, a few elderly Jews from the surrounding area and people who appeared to have decided just at that moment to come to the synagogue to hear Kol Nidrei.

    Hezki and his father found seats in the back. Opening their prayer books, they began to softly recite the Tefila Zaka, the prayer preceding Kol Nidrei. Before they had reached the end, Rav Ehrlich came in; his white yarmulke looked like a folded paper boat on his gray hair. Hezki approached him and smiles and a few words were exchanged. Hezki put on his kittel and wrapped himself in his tallit and walked up to the lectern.

    He stood before the Ark, his heart light within him, free from the imagined burden.

    His father stared, stunned, as if to say ‘Is this indeed my son?’ Hezki turned to him for a moment, as though to take a picture of his father’s image and preserve it in his memory. Upon his face could be seen love and the yearning that would yet come. His face towards the Holy Ark, he began with confidence and gladness, like ‘one who was old and familiar, and his voice pleasant’:

    “Light is sown for the righteous and joy for the pure of heart.”

     

     

     

     

     

     

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