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Batya Casper

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By Batya Casper
Thursday, March 01, 2012

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This is a short story, different in tone from Israela, which I've spun from Israela's background information.

  Tikvah lived with her family in the area of Jerusalem we call Meah Shearim, which as you might know, means a hundred gates.  The mystics believe that the faithful need to watch over those gates of Jerusalem until the Messiah arrives.  

            Reb Zusha and his wife raised their children according to the disciplined routine of the pious, in a stucco house with a naked floor and walls adorned by sacred books and images of the righteous and the dead. Reb Zusha’s mornings were devoted to the study of holy texts, his afternoons to teaching, and his evenings to the manufacturing of suits and shrouds for the members of his community.

          One Monday, after evening prayers, just as he was biting the final thread from a freshly tailored wedding suit, an anemic looking man in his mid forties with open sandals, curled up toes and hairy fingers, called on Reb Zusha, requesting that he prepare a lecture for him and other like-minded naturalists on the therapeutic properties of biblical herbs. Reb Zusha was delighted. The lecture, the naturalist said, would have to be delivered no later than that very Thursday, as his group was planning a pilgrimage to Masada for Friday; intending, in fact, to remain several days on the mountain before journeying on. Rev Zusha had already committed himself for Thursday to deliver a suit to a customer in Tel Aviv, the very suit, in fact, that he had just completed, the final, detached thread still clinging to his fingers.  No problem, he decided. I’ll send Tikvah.

          ‘You’d let our beautiful unmarried girl travel across the country by herself?’

             Reb Zusha paid little attention to his wife. True, Tikvah has a tendency to daydream, he reasoned, but all in all she is a reliable girl. No harm can come from traveling on public transportation accompanied by half the population of Jerusalem. So, Thursday, at the central bus station, after waiting for the incoming passengers to disembark, Tikvah boarded a somewhat rickety inter-city bus, her father’s newly tailored suit in her shopping bag, carefully folded in brown paper.


          Tikvah chose her place near the window. The bus was empty except for her and an old man in wrinkled kaki clothes and a cap. After one or two stops the bus drove by the souk. That’s where it became crowded. Mothers clambered up the steps, jostling ahead of them three or four children apiece while at the same time carrying swathed, if not completely smothered, still actively nursing infants at their breasts. Shapeless matriarchs draped in black clambered on, sweat dripping in dusty rivulets down their heavy, reality-bound faces, live chickens squawking for freedom from their uncompromising grip. An elegant man in a suit boarded, bearing against his chest a paraffin-filled can, obviously preparing for cold weather not due to arrive for another six months. Another man with baggy pants and a handlebar moustache elbowed his way through the door loudly demanding space for his sacks of potatoes and flour.

          People sat crammed into their places, their purchases stacked solidly on their laps and on the seats next to them.  Others rocked to and fro, suspended from the leather overhead straps. The windows had been pried open. A hot, gravelly wind blew through the vehicle bringing no relief from the squawking of the chickens or the smells of the humans. Some were smoking; others were cracking pumpkin and sunflower seeds between their teeth, spitting the shells onto the already thick carpet of discarded vegetation that mingled with cigarette butts on the floor. All this, despite the many signs posted quite clearly in every area of the bus in Arabic, Hebrew and English, specifically forbidding smoking and spitting on the bus.

          When they reached the edge of the city, most of these people with much noise, and an almost visible odor, clambered off, leaving Tikvah and a few unencumbered travelers to enjoy the view. The bus rattled over the narrow, snake-like road that led in those days over the descending mountain ridge, tipping dangerously at every curve, threatening to fall into the abyss.

          Tikvah was elated. As the bus nosed downward, she watched the silvery leaves of the olive groves wave in the hot wind that was blowing that day from the desert, and swore the oath of her forefathers: If I don’t set Jerusalem above all other pleasures, may my right hand forget its cunning.

          It took an hour and a half to arrive at the coast. Tikvah was overwhelmed by the sensual perfume of sand and sea, by the ancient, decaying smell of sea-faring birds. For the first time in her life, she heard the mysterious weeping of gulls and she felt that they were calling her name.  The air, hot as lava, beat mercilessly over her head, causing her curls to cling in wet fingers to her neck and forehead, singeing the delicate blue of her eyeballs, forcing a flush to spread over the paleness of her face and throat. Tikvah, the gentle but reliable dreamer, was consumed by an urge to see the Mediterranean, to be near the sea, to feel its water wash against her skin.

          Within ten minutes, she was at the beach, her feet naked in public for the first time since she was seven years old, her arms sinfully exposed, for the summer sun has little tolerance for the rules and regulations of the faithful. Tikvah showered herself with sand, allowing it to cascade from her arms and legs.  She walked along the shore, splashed the waves over her face, hair, even secretly, down the now open top button of her blouse, relishing the smell and taste of seaweed and salt, the anonymity of this strange, sensual place.

          She bought soda and a packet of dates from a vendor, sat under a palm tree until the heat abated; then left for her father’s client, arriving late, her usually pale skin glowing in sweat and in alarming shades of pink, her hair swinging down her back in a fuzzy black rope, the wedding suit safe, warm and sandy in its crumpled paper wrapping.          

          Tikvah’s mother returned home late that night, despondent after an arduous day’s work at the bank, and an evening of tending to her own ailing mother. Rev Zusha also returned late, elated by his lecture and by the interest that his strange group of ideologues had manifested in the flora and fauna of the Holy Land. Tikvah was sleeping soundly in her bed.

          Good, thought Zusha. I have a delivery girl.

          From that day on, once a month, Tikvah boarded an inter-city bus and delivered freshly tailored men’s suits (and shrouds) to homes in or around Tel Aviv. Yet, between stepping from the bus and delivering the merchandise, there was always a secret hiatus in which the orthodox girl from Meah Shearim was transformed into a lover of nature, of sea and sky, one who relished the touch of waves against her skin, who talked to wild birds.

          You couldn’t miss her when she was there, always under the same, hospitable palm tree. There were always birds flying above or strutting near her on the sand.   One Thursday afternoon in late summer, a group of loud spoken, hard-laughing men and women who were racing each other, rough and tumbling on the beach, crashed around her in the shade and, with much noise and ado, spread their towels, their boiled egg and pickle sandwiches, and their water flasks on the sand. Tikvah got up to leave.

          ‘Are we disturbing you?’ asked a red-haired youth, his face covered in freckles, his eyes as green as the bright winter tide.

          ‘No,’ lied Tikvah, ‘It is time for me to leave.’

          ‘But we’ve not yet begun,’ he whispered, as though they’d met according to plan, his voice hoarse as though he had a cold yet strangely soft and sincere. ‘My name is Boris Lazamof. These are my friends. They’d be sorry if you left.”

          Tikvah had never felt self conscious before. At that moment, though she’d rolled her sleeves as high above her elbows as she was able, and had banished her stockings to the interior of her bag, she felt like a crow. She couldn’t help compare her own somber clothes to the playful skirts and tanned legs of Boris’ friends.  It had never before occurred to her to question the appropriateness of her costume for the climate of her country. She was uncomfortable, yet unable to leave. She could think of nothing to say, yet she stayed, rooted for some reason to that spot.  Boris and his friends appeared to be oblivious of her discomfort. Their talk around her sounded more like the overhead interchange of the seagulls than conversation. Yes. She decided, after just a moment or so, that she liked these sleeveless, barelegged, carefree people. She liked their laughter, their freedom, their open faces.

          From then on she met them once a month, each time beneath that same palm tree.

          Boris told her that he and his friends were immigrants from Russia. “Cossacks,” he told her, “Jewish Cossacks.”  Which, she soon realized, simply meant that they were horse-riding, hard-living, outdoor Jews who danced, men and women together, in wild circles, their ankles naked, their arms intertwined around each other’s waists.  Tikvah had never spoken to Jews like those.

          One momentous morning, Boris brought a bag of fresh plucked figs to the beach. Tikvah muttered the appropriate blessing before biting into one. Boris said,

          ‘It’s interesting that you do that. We don’t.”


          “We don’t believe in God,’ 

          “What do you mean?”

          ‘Just that.’

Tkvah said,

          ‘Oh,’ the bitten fig heavy on her tongue.

Then she asked,

          ‘What do you believe in?’

          ‘We believe in reclaiming the earth from the desert, in building it up from the roots into the kind of fertile farmland that will feed our nation. We believe that with all our hearts.”

             Tikvah had never met anyone who talked like that. I should go home, she thought. But she didn’t. I won’t deal with this now, she thought. Won’t mention it to my parents. Not now.

          Yet she continued to come once a month as though hypnotized to that spot until it was too late for her to turn back, until Tikvah, the gentle but reliable dreamer, had nurtured dual loyalties within her single heart.


            After that first meeting, Tikvah began looking at her parents as she had never done before – her father in his striped satin coat, his skull cap and dark side-curls , curls that were wound around his ears and which were beginning to gray. As though for the first time, she noticed the tiny lines at the sides of his eyes; noticed the soft, worried brown of his eyes, eyes and broad nose both – set to wrinkle upward in a worried, short sighted smile whenever she chose to look at him. She watched as he bent over his books each morning, removing his glasses to clean them, mumbling the words to himself, scribbling notes; she listened at the door as he taught his students, all their heads grouped together round the table, over the text, closing out the light. She brought him his glass of tea and almond cookie in the evenings, when he sat cross-legged on his work table singing his old European songs, munching on his poppy seeds, sewing the suits and shrouds that tied her to the sea - despite his mother’s daily warning that it was not right to sit on a table, because a table was almost as sacred as an altar. Tikvah had no idea what that meant, but knew not to ask.           

            Tikvah went with her mother more often now to her grandmother’s, to that house at the end of their alley and across the empty field that smelled of pain, of medicine, of death lurking in the shadows. She was fascinated by the strength of her mother’s arms as, sleeves pushed to her elbows, she massaged her own mother’s limbs; as she bathed her mother’s bedsores in iodine and turned her on the mattress. “When I was small,” her mother told Tikvah, “she did the same for her mother, your great grandmother.” Tikvah watched as her mother prayed in the corner of the room that her grandmother be healed, wondering, for the first time, what it must be like for her mother to have her hair permanently covered, whether it itched, whether it was hot, whether, in the secret of her heart, her mother wanted to remove it, walk around free and unencumbered like Boris’ friends on the beach; wondering what it would be like for her, Tikvah, to cover her hair when she got married. The most inappropriate thoughts kept popping into her mind as she watched her mother pray: Does covering her head make it sweat? Give her pimples under her hair cover? Make her hair fall out?  Her mother’s praying was different from the prayers her father uttered morning and night.  For one thing, her father’s prayers seemed like an intimate interlude between two friends so used to each other they have nothing new to say, so they repeat the same conversations over and over, those two old friends; for another – her father’s prayers were more general than the ones her mother uttered, prayers for the benefit of the entire house of Israel, for all mankind, for that matter. Her mother’s prayer was specific, aimed with precision at making her grandmother better while it was eminently clear to anyone who dared cross her grandma’s threshold, that she was beyond help.  So, Tikvah watched her Ima pray while growing increasingly ill at ease. Does Ima miss being pretty?  - Because Tikvah had watched her in the privacy of their home and knew she was prettier with her hair uncovered. Prettiness was not an attribute Jews valued, her parents would tell her if she'd ask. Why not? Sarah in the Bible was said to have been beautiful; and the entire fate of Israel weighed on the scale of Queen Esther’s good looks.  Boris loved that Tikvah was pretty. He was always telling her that.  She liked being pretty, too.

            Her mother was kissing her tiny book now to signify that she’d come to the end of her prayer. What would happen, Tikvah wondered, if - God forbid - I broke the chain of daughters praying for their parents’ health in rooms that reek of death?  It would be easier, Tikvah thought, if my brother were here. Hers were the only parents she knew who had only two children, however adult, and her brother had been away from home for over a year.

            One day, while walking home from the market with her mother, Tikvah said, “How do other people live?”

“What people?”

“Other people. Not like us. How do they live?”

“I don’t know,” her mother answered, “We’re not other people.”

“What would you do if you met them? If you had to talk to them?”


“Other people.”

“I do meet other people, every day, at the bank.”

“What do you say to them?”

I say hello. I ask them how they are, what I can do for them. I even wish them a good day, when I’m in the mood.. Why?”

“They look so nice. Other people.”

“I’m sure they are - nice, Tikvah..”

After about five minutes of walking uphill in silence, her mother snapped, “what are you telling me, Tikvah? What other people?”

“People in the streets, on the buses. People who are building the country.” 

“Our country is built up of many people, Tikvah. That’s the way the world is.”

“It’s nice,” insisted Tkvah, nice that that’s the way the world is.”

That night, the sliver of light beneath her parents’ door remained on until 2am; Tikvah could hear her mother whispering through the wall. 


             A year passed during which time Tikvah learned everything there was to know about Boris: his loving heart, his quick temper, his bouts of self-doubt and despair, his determination – more than anything else, his determination to build a country out of the desert sand. At night, in her parents’ home, she’d dream that she was clinging to the end of a rope, trying with all her might to hold on, not to let go, not to fall from her whitewashed room down, down, through what must be a hole in the floor into the depths of an ocean which she could see from her rope was the brightest of greens.  The floor around the hole was strewn with books and with stained fragments of parchment. As she clung to her rope, she saw her grandmother lying among the books; saw her mother too, standing with her back to her, praying; her father cross-legged on his worktable, ripping his suits to shreds.

             It was mid summer when she left. The windows were closed, shuttered against the savagely hot wind that was blowing sand across the empty lots, through the streets, into every open window or doorway, into peoples’ eyes and throats.  Her parents were away from home. Tikvah packed a few personal effects, some clothes, but mainly photographs of her family. She took a silver teaspoon from her mother’s dinner set because it was engraved with her parents’ initials; she took the brass candlesticks that her parents were keeping for her wedding day; she took a prayer book. You’d think she was going to a far off country never to see her family again. Then she wrote her parents a letter in which she told them everything.

          ‘My darling Ima and Aba,’ she wrote. ‘I’m longing to come home and talk to you as I always do while drinking your special plum soup, Ima, at the kitchen table. But I have something to say that is too big for the kitchen table. Something I can say only with a pen and an envelope that I can close.   I am writing to try to explain for you how mesmerized I am by the sea.  I know you’ll hardly believe it’s me who writes in this manner; while I? - I don’t know whether you’ve even seen the sea. If you haven’t, please Ima and Aba, for God’s sake, if not for your own, you must. In the sea’s wild beauty you will recognize God’s work as clearly - I’d like to say more clearly but I know you’ll think that’s sacrilege  - as you do in the lines of His scripture. And, while I’m anyway on the subject, I want to tell you how inexplicably drawn I am to the wild birds, birds as gray as the pre-dawn sky that fly over the Mediterranean, strutting along the shore, which honest to God (and I’m not taking God’s name in vain) is made of spun corn, wandering inland even as far as people’s roof tops. You might never have seen or heard these birds either, for I’ve never heard you mention them, but I encounter them when I bring your suits, Aba, to your clients in Tel-Aviv. You, of all people, must know how everything beautiful is part of God’s world. And God’s beauty sings to me when I’m near the great, blue water that both separates us from other peoples and their lands, and connects us to them, strangers who are walking on their beaches at the same time as we are walking on ours, relishing God’s beauty, listening to the call of the gulls.  

          I can hear you asking, yes, but why can’t she tell us that in our own home, round the kitchen table? So, I will tell you that I have something else to say that is even bigger than God’s birds and His seemingly calm but uncontrollable waves. My dearest Ima. My most loved Aba. Don’t be angry. I have met an honest, moral and loving man, and I have fallen in love with him.   So, now you’re saying how could she have talked to a man, a stranger neither of us has ever met, without an introduction?  Then, no doubt, you’ll fret and go about your separate ways, blue flames darting from your eyes, Ima, and the tiny mole on your check turning dark, chopping your parsley extra fast and extra finely on your wooden board while tugging your headscarf down to your eyebrows with the tips of your fingers, as you do when you’re mad. And you, Aba, striding round the neighborhood with your head thrust forward, your glasses threatening to fall from your nose, coming home with your book unopened, but held so tightly in your fist that your knuckles are white, and your brow is still puckered up. When neither of you can hold your feelings in any longer, you’ll no doubt ask each other why doesn’t she come home and tell us about him so we can inquire into his family? But then I will tell you there’s no point in your inquiring into his family because this honest, moral and loving man does not know God.

          Now, I know you will put your head in your hands, Ima, and groan, and your face, Aba, will become ashen gray and you’ll start to cough so Ima will worry about you, lift her head and stop groaning. You will tell me there’s no such thing as such a man, and that if there were, I should keep far away from him. But there is. And I can’t. I have met him, and I love him, and I’m writing to tell you, my dear, most beloved parents that I want to marry Boris Lazamoff and live on his agricultural farm in the north of the country. I want to learn how to milk goats and sheep; to transform the milk into cheese; to turn olives into oil and beehives into honey. I want to learn how to plant and till the soil, to build up this country that has spread its beauty like wings around me, for I have come to realize, my dear, wonderful parents, that that is the reason God has set me on this earth. If you can find it in your hearts to let me do this and come to my wedding, I will be the happiest of women. If not, I will remain forever, from a distance, your loving daughter.’

          After that, there was silence. No answering letter. No urgent call to come home. Tikvah was frightened to return home. “We should go to them,” Boris said,  “We’re not being respectful,” but Tikvah insisted that they wait. She stayed with Annyush, Boris’ friend. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for, but she knew she had to wait.

 A week passed. Two. “We’re not being respectful,” Boris said again, ”we need to visit them.”

          That night, in her dream, Tikvah fell off the rope.

          In the morning, she told Boris, “We must go now. Right now. It’s time.”

          They walked up the hill from the central Jerusalem bus stop, turned into their neighborhood with its hyssop and its tarragon bushes, past the school, past the corner store strangely empty of people at that time of day, past the synagogue to the bank where her mother worked. There was a sign on the door, “Closed for the funeral.”

          Tikvah stopped as she turned into her parents’ alley with its dirt road and scruffy houses, her hands rising as though in slow motion to her face. A procession was walking toward them, a procession in black. Her parents were holding on to each other in the front row of people, facing her, her mother's face emptied of expression. Ten men, three of whom Tikva recognized as her father’s students; one as the new young Rabbi, his ten-year-old son clinging to his knee; one as the banker where her mother worked, were carrying her Savta, now no longer sick, to the cemetery on a board draped in black. Earth to earth…

          Her mother put her arms around her and cried wordlessly. Her father kissed her cheek and shook Boris’ hand. Not a word was spoken.

          For a week Tikvah and Boris sat in the house of morning, bringing her parents tea morning and evening, serving them food that the neighbors had brought in, Tikvah slipping pumkin seends into her father's pocket so he could munch them between prayers.   Boris was sent to sleep at a neighbor’s. Tikvah slept in her own room, marveling at how small it had become. Boris was given a skullcap and a prayer book and conscripted into service; Tikvah sat with her mother and listened as neighbors told spun her grandmother’s story.

          “Stay,” her father told them after the seven days of mourning. “Boris will study. He’ll learn. He’ll find work. You’ll raise a family.

          But they left, because Boris couldn’t do that. Neither could Tikvah.  They needed the open vistas, the light, life only the land – and, for Tikvah, the sea, could give them.


          Tikvah’s parents did not attend her wedding, though she waited and hoped. One windy afternoon, a rabbi, a young man with a purple skullcap that kept blowing off his head, walked across the empty lot at the back of the shack in which Boris was living.

          ‘Shalom aleichem,’ he said, and Tikvah greeted him back.

          She offered the rabbi a glass of water, asked him if he were lost. Rabbis were scarce in that part of the country. He asked, “How can we be lost in our own land?” Rav Zvi sat under Boris’ arbor of vine-leaves, ate a meal of rice with pine nuts, eggs fresh from the chickens, olives. He drank a glass of iced tea, mopped his brow. ‘So,’ he asked, when he was quite done, ‘when is the wedding?’

          Rav Zvi married Tikvah and Boris that evening as the sun sank into the sea. He married them under the sprawling grapevine amid a circle of their neighbors. ‘Your challenge,’ he told them, ‘is to embrace family, friend and stranger, especially the stranger, in your circle of love. Love is the challenge of our time.’

          Rav Zvi enveloped Boris in a bear hug, bowed with a flourish to Tikvah, sauntered off across the tawny grass, his song of thanks rising above him as he descended into the gentle village of the Druze and their goats.”











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