Jerusalem, a Beggar's Prospect
by Moshe Dann (February 2013)
Na, Nach, N'chma, Nachman M'Uman. Someone sang in the empty street, dancing alone in divine embrace, twirling hands above his white kippa-covered head like tiny wings to carry him away. A song for Rebbe Nachman. Pleasing, Restfulness, Comfort, Nachman from Uman, echoing between stone buildings and the first sounds of birds in the trees, the fresh smell of dew, a new day birthing.
Idiot, Amos muttered, pulling the thin blanket around him, as sunlight began to fill the room along with Sephardi pop music and the smell of fried onions. The world in Holy Confusion. A car honked impatiently. "Yaaafaa, Yaaafaa…" A shrill woman's voice scratched across backyard fences, over and over, like a wretched bird, screeching its hunger for gossip hanging on lines of newly-washed clothes. A siren howled in the distance; he hoped it wasn't another terrorist attack. The air was thick with sand and dust. A hamsin was beginning; Katamonim awakening.
Moria was already up doing yoga exercises in the living room. After a year together he knew the sound of her concentration. Wearing his grey sweat suit, her light-brown hair pulled back in a pony tail, she centered herself, hardly moving in the early morning shafts of light; then, unwinding, she drifted into a frozen dance, uncompromised.
Amos wished she would stay a little longer with him, but he knew it was late. Clothes piled carelessly on a chair, dusty sandals scattered across the floor -- springtime in Jerusalem and things needed to be done. The small café that he'd managed had gone up in smoke, literally, when Arab terrorists blew it up. Ami, his best friend was killed in the blast, along with six others. Moti, the owner, called it quits and moved back with his ex-wife and her four cats. At fifty three, Amos was out of a job, a deficit balance, a 'minus' in the bank and a sense of impending disaster.
Kol Yisrael, the news signal beeped from a neighbor's radio, seven o'clock. A suicide bomber blew up a bus in Haifa; nine killed, twenty seven wounded. Rock throwing attacks on the highway near Wadi Ara. Missiles from Gaza hit Negev communities; one hurt. Gas prices up; salaries for Knesset members raised. Peace negotiations continue despite the violence. The weather: hot and dry.
After his divorce he'd rented a small apartment in Katamonim, a run-down neighborhood of southern Jerusalem that had been on the border until the 1967 "Six-Day" War. Populated largely by Jewish refugees who'd escaped Arab countries in the early 1950's, its residents had squatted wherever they could, building small homes with what they could afford, or scrounge from construction sites where they worked. The government built simple, ugly public housing that reflected the disdain of its planners; an industrial zone grew nearby, filled with auto repair shops and junk yards; and, at the end of the line, railroad tracks leading to an abandoned train station. But after the '67 war, as new neighborhoods and shopping centers sprouted around the city, even Katamonim began to show signs of improvement. More prosperous inhabitants moved into renovated buildings nearby; the poor tried to hold on, but offered enormous prices for their meager apartments, many sold and moved out.
A child's cry in the street below startled him; Abba. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed he felt the reassuring coolness of the tile floor. A broken shelf needed fixing; windows still dirty from winter seemed to mirror Moria's restlessness and her ambivalence. They'd met at a Purim party; his shoes were rain-soaked, she wore a flower in her backpack. Next year she would turn forty, he noticed strands of grey in her hair as if that compensated for the difference in their ages. Another knot. Don't leave, he begged silently like an undeserving child.
In an hour she'd return to her own apartment next to Machane Yehuda, the shuk, the open central marketplace filled with stalls of fruits and vegetables and tiny shops. Near the center of town, the neighborhoods surrounding Machane Yehuda and Mea Shearim, ultra-Orthodox sections, were the last vestiges of 19th century Jerusalem, protests against modernity and real estate developers. Enclaves of small homes often clustered around a cistern or well, its residents had survived pogroms and sieges, but not the onslaught of civilization and wealthy investors. Mea Shearim had maintained its isolation and strict religious orientations, but Machane Yehuda had a diverse population and no restrictions -- and in the shuk one could still find bargains and a mix of people among throngs of shoppers.
It was her day to take care of her kids. One of his would arrive later in the day as well. She'd been fired from Tzaddik's jewelry shop on Jaffa Road where she'd worked for a few years; he'd applied to manage a coffee shop that was opening in the new Mamilla mall near the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Shipwrecks in dry-docks of divorce waiting to be repaired, he wondered: would we ever sail again? They tried to balance obligations, loneliness and weekends together when they didn't have their kids, their lives pulling in different directions, hanging on.
"I've been thinking," Moria turned to him. "I went to a lecture on Kaballah last night; Rabbi Meir spoke about spiritual intimacy," she took a long breath. "What are we doing together?" Half-whispered, the words defined the struggle she confronted. "Boundaries," she said, facing the window. Her thin body trembled slightly as she pulled into the pain and then released it.
"I love you," he tried to find words to fill spaces, leaving pot holes of hope. 'Commitments,' he tried to unwind in his mind. After his café was bombed, he'd worked at others, but found himself anxiously examining customers, a glass shaking in his hand when he remembered the explosion. Bloodied faces loomed from the ceiling fan. Part of a leg torn from a body hanging on an elegant chair. Most of the insurance money was gone after a friend-of-a-friend of his, a stock market wizard, lost it on a risky tech stock.
"Yes, I love you too," Moria smiled. "But I've been thinking about what the Rav said. Your love comes from need. It's not grounded in spiritual necessity." He remembered her blessings as they fell asleep, wound together, holding each other against the world, nestled in her dark sweet warmth. “Shema Yisrael …”
"I feel it in my womb," she said, steadying her body, breathing into the strain that rippled through her. Wombs are serious, Amos thought.
"You don't know where you're going."
"Teach me." He pulled on his worn jeans and a torn black T-shirt.
"Teach yourself! Oh, Amos, you just don't understand who you are, or who I am. We're great lovers, and then everything peels away, like an onion, until there's nothing left. Just emptiness. And then you get detached, from me, from you. You hang on to your precious, delicate world. But you don't believe in me; you don’t believe in yourself. Oh God, do you understand?"
"What does God have to do with this? Okay, I see things as they are. I'm practical, not a mystic, but what's wrong with that?"
"There's something more that holds people together, something in their souls that binds them …"
"Souls? What's this religious crap? My soles are on the bottom of my feet."
"That's the point. You have another kind of soul and wherever that is, it didn't connect with mine. When I hold you I feel like I'm holding a lost little boy, and a man too," she smiled, "but the child in you is sucking life -- out of you, out of me."
"So you'll be my mother. Freud would love that."
"Well, we can be all of those things to each other if it's grounded in something more than you and me…" Breathing in, she held it and then released it. "Without God between us…"
"When we're making love?"
"When we're making love," she nodded, as if solving a riddle. "And when we're not making love, when we're close, and far apart. You don't know what it means to have a soul mate."
"Oh, don't give me that 'soul mate' crap. You're listening to Rebbes .. or someone …"
"No, just listening to myself. You need to listen to yourself."
"I listen to myself all the time."
"And what do you hear?"
"That's the point." She sighed. "Family, I want to be a family, but not with you."
"We are a family, sort of, aren't we?" Amos tried to appease her. "You have your kids; I have mine. And we have each other." But the pieces of their puzzle didn't fit.
An Angel Bakery delivery truck crawled up the street towards the small grocery store, grinding gears like teeth and excuses. It was time for the news, but he didn’t want to listen. The city is writhing in pain and ecstasy, battle-scarred and burnished joy, sweet pastries of affection and bitter rivalries, holiness extant. Too many wars and not enough peace.
From the window a lone dark Cypress wavered in the dull heat. A cat howled. Moria began to put on her clothes. Amos wanted to put his arms around her. “Don’t!” she warned, her eyes fierce. He didn’t.
Cars honked in the street below, drivers shouted, signing to each other like the deaf man in the shuk who sells potatoes and indicates the price with his fingers. Vendors of fruits and vegetables shouting: The finest. A bargain. Three shekels a kilo. Whywhywhy...
Our love, the holiest. Take what you need; nothing lasts forever.
“Too many possessions,” Moria had said brushing mud from the radishes, filling bags with carrots and potatoes. She examined the tomatoes carefully to find the best. Too much to carry, she sighed as Amos slipped more bags around his fingers and their fingers around each other, wanting more than they could hold.
“Marry me,” she suggested playfully. “At least it will give us something to fight about." Amos wondered if she were serious. "This way we won't be able to run away so easily.” She laughed. Near a stand filled with celery and beets he wanted to explain how much he loved her, as vendors stood behind piles of produce shouting.
Ya! Habibi! How much for a kilo of love?
She dressed quickly, stuffing an extra shirt and underwear into one of the plastic bags that had held groceries. Down the street a small crew of Arabs, Asians and Eastern Europeans was digging a trench for TV cables, Internet, and phones lines, communicating with gestures and strange words. Words, Amos thought, impossible to make sense of what was happening, filled him with panic. He wanted to embrace her, but she edged away, avoiding his eyes.
Looking around quickly, she grabbed some fruit and vegetables, put them into a plastic bag and dashed down the stairs into the street as if pursued. From the balcony Amos watched her drive off through a flutter of pigeons, newspapers and empty soda bottles. Why did you leave? Why? Lamah?
“Drive safely,” he murmured in the wake of her determination, hoping she'd suddenly change her mind, turn around, rush up the stairs and make love. He rinsed the dishes and then walked down to the street.
Impulsively, Amos got into his car and drove in the direction of a passing ambulance. Bombs and rockets were exploding in the distant hills as snipers shot across the valley. At first it sounded like the crackle of lightning, then heavy thunder as a fighter plane flew low overhead, followed by a helicopter heading toward the noise of machine guns and shelling. People sat in the chic cafes of Emek Refaim unconcerned with what was going on, busy with details of their lives. The fashion of entropy.
At the main intersection a taxicab cut off another car and they smashed into each other creating a traffic jam. Angry drivers jumped out of their cars and began screaming at each other over who was right and who was wrong.
On the concrete island at the traffic light a tall, thin young Hassid, wearing a large white kippah and long black coat, side curls swirling, shook a soda can he'd made into a homemade 'charity box.'
"Tzedaka!" he shouted, eyes full of hope, pockets stuffed with cassette tapes of music and little booklets of prayers and advice. Amos smiled as he approached, dropped a few coins into the can, received a blessing and a pamphlet through the half-open window: "Repair The World." He tossed it in the back seat and waited for the light to change.
In the rear-view mirror, a trail of cars wound out of sight. Across the road the Malcha shopping mall offered a safe haven, distractions, an orderly, protected world. The traffic light changed to green, but still no one moved. A police car blocked the street. Another helicopter passed overhead and puffs of smoke plumed from the drab, dusty hills, like excuses. The driver in the car alongside Amos' picked his nose. Traffic now backed up as far as he could see and drivers began to honk impatiently. Amos remembered the intensity in Moria's eyes.
The driver ahead of him kissed his girlfriend. Maybe she was his wife. Maybe he hardly knew her at all, Amos wondered. Was she his 'soul mate'?
Suddenly the Hassid tapped the window. More, he wants more? Amos was irritated. Chutzpah!
“Can you give me a lift to Kyriat Yovel?” he asked innocently. Cars were being detoured in that direction anyway. Amos hesitated.
What do I have to lose? he thought and nodded as the Hassid got in. Amos despised him, his dusty clothes and scraggly beard, but he felt obligated, compelled to accommodate him, a willing prisoner. Following traffic, he headed toward the bleak housing projects of Kyriat Yovel. A tall black-clad Ethiopian woman holding an infant wrapped in a colorful shawl waited under a palm tree to cross the road. Kids played on the huge monster slide in the park, slipping in and out of its mouth, sliding down its long red tongues. He passed the bus stop where several years before an Arab terrorist had blown himself up along with several nurses on their way to work at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. A ragged memorial of stones and dry flowers marked the spot with names and the date.
“Turn here,” the Hassid instructed him. Amos wished he'd refused from the beginning.
“But I’m going the other way,” he offered apologetically. “Sorry, I can’t.”
“It'll only take a minute. It's that building over there.” The Hassid pointed to a long brown cement building. Amos thought he could make a quick U-turn, drop him off, and be on his way. But as they got closer he realized that he'd have to detour around the barrier that separated traffic. Amos was getting more irritated and impatient.
“I’m sorry I took you out of your way,” the Hassid apologized. “You've been so kind; don’t bother. I’ll get out wherever you want,” he said quietly.
“It’s okay,” Amos muttered, gritting his teeth. He tried to smile, feeling guilty that he'd thought badly of him. What does he want from me?
“I give money to a family that lives over there. They have nothing to eat,” the Hassid explained. He looked at Amos with large sad eyes. “Nothing,” he repeated.
He wants a pay-off, Amos thought as he stopped in front of the building.
“Here,” he handed him a 50-shekel note. “For food,” he assured himself. A contract; no more guilt. The Hassid smiled broadly and tried to kiss Amos' hand. He pulled back just in time and waved him off. “Please,” Amos pleaded. "I have to go."
“You’re a tzadik,” he said, “a real tzadik,” he repeated emphatically as he opened the door. “Come in; meet the family.”
Amos shook his head. “No,” he replied wearily.
“It won’t take long,” the Hassid urged. His face lit up with anticipation. “It’s a mitzvah.”
“No thanks,” he repeated more firmly.
He wants more from me! What am I doing with this beggar? He has his problems and I have mine. I shlepped him around and now asks me for more? Amos wanted to speed away, angry with himself that he'd gotten entangled, but the Hassid persisted. One hand on the open car door, slightly bent over, he waited, like Moria holding a position.
A loud bang reverberated as a fighter jet flew overhead. The ground shook. The war, Amos thought, like being in love. It would give me something to do with my life, a purpose. He remembered holding Moria on the beach at Nitzanim, picking sea shells, looking for patterns; the tide of your muscles pulling me gently with you, the smell of your skin when we came out of the water and you hugged me for warmth.
“I could stay here forever,” she said, digging her toes into the sand.
“Alone?” he asked cautiously.
“Yes. Or perhaps with you...” she paused, and then added, “sometimes.”
“You could be a nun.”
“But not a very good one,” she winked, squeezing his hand. Waves smoothed the soft body of beach, quietly covering what could not be understood or resolved. A ship moved slowly across the horizon. Sea gulls cawed goodbye, a sadness he could not yet feel, the horizon flushed with golden-red clouds and the chill of evening, as they held each other like an unsolved riddle.
“Well, what do you say?” the Hassid peered at Amos.
“No,” Amos answered roughly. “No, I can’t!” he repeated emphatically.
“I have other commitments,” Amos insisted. “Okay?”
“Commitments?” The Hassid raised his eyebrows.
How dare you ...? Amos stopped himself. The truth was that he had nothing else to do. Glaring at him, he repeated slowly, “Yes. Commitments!”
Still the Hassid held on to the door, his sidecurls dancing around his ears.
“Come,” he said simply. “Please. I want you to see ..." Leaning forward, he looked straight at him. “What will happen if you take a chance?”
“Chaver," Amos began sarcastically, "whatever your name is, I have my own life and I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I gave you a lift. I did what I could do. Now, leave me alone."
The Hassid shut his eyes tightly and swayed back and forth, as if trying to balance. “You don’t understand. You gave me a ride because you thought it was the right thing to do. But this isn't about doing me a favor,” and, closing the door, he walked away.
Suddenly, Amos thought he saw Moria running between buildings. Was it her? Was she going to meet a new lover? he wondered. Why did she leave? He parked and tried to follow her, but soon became lost in one of the courtyards. Someone called to him. "Where you going?" Kids ran past; people shouted to one another from their windows. "What do you want? What are you doing here?"
The Hasid suddenly appeared above him on a laundry-draped balcony, waving and beckoning. A minute later he stood in front of Amos.
"You've come to visit," he announced enthusiastically. "You've come…"
"No," Amos insisted, looking around for a way out. "I thought I saw …"
"So come to us…" the Hasid took Amos' arm. Amos pulled back.
"Leave me alone. You want me to become one of you. I know, the 'out-reach' thing. And then we'll stand on street-corners together. Sure." The Hasid stepped back.
"And I'll buy a long black coat and wear a silly hat," Amos continued. "White socks! Pray a hundred times a day! And talk to The Rebbe in my dreams! Oh no. Not me, my friend, not me!"
"I am your friend," the Hasid said quietly.
"My friend? You? I don't know you; you don't know me. I don't want to have anything to do with you -- you and everything you stand for. Take your piety and poverty. It's my gift to you. But leave me alone."
"Fine." The Hasid adjusted his kippah. "Anyway, come," unfazed by what Amos had said. Taking Amos' arm, the Hasid guided him into a darkened entranceway filled with baby carriages, small bicycles and an old wheelchair and up a flight of stairs. Amos felt suddenly helpless, unable to resist. Out of breath, he held the railing.
The Hasid knocked on a door and pushed it open. The apartment contained little furniture – a torn, threadbare couch, a bookshelf nearly collapsing with holy books, a few chairs around a cluttered dining room table. A small child peeked out from a doorway; sounds of other children from other rooms.
An old man sat at a small kitchen table. A large pot bubbled on the stove in back of him, open shelves with dishes and a few packages of food, a bare light bulb, metal chairs covered in green plastic. The Hasid whispered to the Rebbe and then stood back. Smiling warmly, the Rebbe grasped Amos' hand and pulled him towards the table. "Sit," he said.
"My Rebbe," the Hasid said, bowing slightly, a hand on Amos' shoulder.
Primitive, Amos thought, noticing the Rebbe's frayed cuffs and unkempt beard. Israeli pop music drifted through the thin walls of the apartment next door.
The Rebbe's eyes twinkled. He stroked his beard. "Nu," he said. "Some tea?"
Amos shook his head.
"Soda?" Again Amos declined. The Rebbe placed a package of sugar cookies on the table, took one and handed the package to Amos.
Nibbling, Amos seemed unable to speak. He began to sweat.
"You came here…" the Rebbe began softly." How can I help you?"
Amos wanted to tell him about Moria, about his life. Maybe he can make sense out of it. Rebbes are supposed to know. But what does this old man know about me, or life? Amos tried to look back at the Rebbe, but felt awkward. This is absurd, opening myself up to a complete stranger, and one from another world. Amos looked at his watch. The Hasid had disappeared. He started to get up.
Reaching across the table the Rebbe took Amos' hand. Suddenly Amos was filled with a sharp, intense sadness, as if the Rebbe's fingers had touched a chasm inside. Amos pressed his lips together, afraid of exposing himself, fighting the urge to cry out, knowing that if he spoke it would be a sign of weakness and surrender.
What does he want from me? Amos thought. More money?
"Tell me what is in your heart," the Rebbe asked gently.
My heart! Nice ploy, Amos thought. First you get into my kishkes and then my pockets.
"What do you want?" the Rebbe insisted.
"Moria," Amos blurted out.
The Rebbe looked puzzled. "Moria?" Amos nodded. "So it's about love. You and Moria. Good." He patted Amos' hand. Amos thought of his father. "When you're in love and when you're loved, you're close to God."
God? Amos thought. What does God have to do with this?
"When you're in love you hold the soul of another person in your hands. We become so vulnerable."
Souls? Amos smirked. A game; who would trust, and who would not.
"The world is filled with lost souls looking for their partner. Part of us is always missing. The Holy Zohar speaks of this wandering, like candles looking for Light. Everything is shattered; we hold the remnants in our hands. And then you find someone. You see their flame and it's your flame too. It's the flame of The Holy One Blessed Be He, The Infinite, burning there. That's what we call love." The Rebbe laughed softly. "This is a great power; it guides you to purpose, to awareness, or, God forbid, to wilderness, to Exile, Galut." The Rebbe stopped. "Where do you belong?"
Amos listened to the clock, sounds of children, Mizrachi Blues from the radio next door, a melody of love.
"So you're searching." The Rebbe scratched his beard. "What really matters? Whether you're in love, or not, it's still a choice about life. There's so much to appreciate, thank God for what He has given…"
"Thank God?" Amos said sharply. "For losing Moria, my business, my family?"
"Well, when you can understand that whatever happens is from God, you can be happy. It doesn't matter …"
"What? It's all the same?"
"Not to you, perhaps. We feel sad when we lose someone, or something; that's our nature, because we're stuck in this life. But that's not everything. Do you know about Rebbe Yochanan?"
Another Rebbe, Amos shook his head.
"He was a great scholar who lived during the Roman persecution two thousand years ago. He had ten sons; every one of them was killed by the Romans along with his entire family. Nothing left, he carried around a bone of his youngest son and when he would meet someone who was in sorrow he would show them this bone to comfort them and encourage them to go on."
Amos felt as if someone was pushing on his chest. "I have to go," he said, getting up.
"Come back whenever you wish," the Rebbe said. "Forgive me for not taking you to the door." It was then that Amos realized that the Rebbe had only one leg.
"You noticed," the Rebbe continued. "My leg. I miss her. I was walking past a café, the one near King George Street and Paris Square. It was about two years ago. I'd stopped inside to ask for a glass of water, and then there was a terrible explosion. Did you know the place?"
Amos nodded, a chill along his spine, memory touching a nerve. The café had been full that afternoon. He'd stepped outside to empty a sack of garbage in the dumpster. The blast knocked him against a car across the street. Screams filled the air, the ground littered with pieces of bodies, the smell of explosives and burned human flesh, ashen faces beyond recognition. A child crying, Abba, Abba.
"Sometimes I think, why me?" the Rebbe opened one hand with the question. "But then, maybe I took someone else's place. My leg instead of theirs." The other hand, an answer. "You'll come for Shabbos? A meal? Anytime."
"Thanks. I'll see…" Amos rushed out of the apartment and down the stairs, sounds banging in his head. Perhaps I'm dehydrated, he thought as he passed a small grocery store, bought two bottles of water. Sitting in his car, he drank one quickly, his hands shaking.
Driving home, nearly sunset as traffic began to ease, he got to the intersection where he'd picked up the Hasid. The police had left and another Hasid stood on the tiny island of concrete next to the light. Another shlepper, Amos thought, turning slowly, looking back in the rear view mirror as he passed. The Hasid seemed to wave with both hands. Dancing? A nut case?
Flap. Flap. "Oh no!" Amos groaned and pulled on to the shoulder of the road. Still dizzy, he got out and stared at the flat tire. Leaning his head against his car, he tried to gather strength. His body ached with the thought of what he had to do. "Moria," he sighed and opened the trunk. Slowly he pulled out the spare and sank to his knees. Can I do this?
Turning around, Amos saw the Hasid cross the street head towards him.
"Can I help?" he asked.
Amos shook his head. Leave me alone, he wanted to say, but didn't stop the Hasid from finding the jack and placing it under the car.
Taking off his coat, the Hasid began to change the tire. Amos wanted to protest this unrequested help, but he was also grateful.
Maybe he's thirsty, Amos thought and grabbing the other bottle of water, he handed it to the Hasid.
The Hasid smiled at Amos as if he was a long lost friend. "Holy brother," the Hasid exclaimed. "How did you know?" and drank.
"Yeah," Amos mocked, "holy brother."
When he finished, the Hasid brushed himself off and put on his coat. Amos offered to pay him, but the Hasid smiled, shook his head and raised his hands.
"Can you help me pass these out?" Handing Amos a package of pamphlets, he crossed the street and began to weave between cars.
Repair the World, written across the cover, the sun hovering in grey dusk, Amos followed the Hasid, slipping tracts through open windows, the sound of a nigun the Hasid was humming, ayaya …nanana… as if the whole world was singing with him.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
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