Some people ease into your life as if they have always been there and have only been out mailing a letter. Their chair is still warm. Some people know you, recognize in you immediately what most never see. In the presence of such people the word no becomes meaningless. So it was with Arieh. I had been feeling miserable all morning, gummed up with melancholy and bitter thoughts. I had delayed a trip to the souk, the covered market, in order to walk aimlessly around the university’s residential complex feeling the sun’s unrelenting heat, the hard stones of the little paths between buildings, the prickly fingers of rosemary that sprouted everywhere, a dark mute green, releasing a fog of sweet scent when I brushed my hand over them.
There stood an hour’s walk between me and the souk, a walk that began as a steep decline from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, along El Wadi road in East Jerusalem. Then the route wandered in the shade of a nameless street housing lesser embassies and hotels in a state of circumspect decline. This emptied at last onto a wide boulevard of construction and smog, where the blue flag of the United Nations office flapped palely behind a shroud of dust, and where the crowded tenements of Mea She’arim, Jerusalem’s Hassidic neighborhood, began. I was still under the illusion that the long white dress I had worn to the souk was modest enough for my walk through Mea She’arim, but in fact the light cotton was almost sheer, and the small buttons down the front from neck to hem were far too small to do the work a button should. I would say this was the reason Arieh turned to me, standing before the entrance of the building where I lived, to say: “Ah, my queen, my queen, marry me,” but that could not really have been the reason, because Arieh was blind.
I left for Jerusalem because Toronto was cold and I had spent the past year immobilized by an ugly, humiliating illness. I had nearly failed half my courses at the university. The urban mornings, all glass and glint, which usually filled me with energy, now left me cold; everything seemed grey, suffused with fog, heavy and damp. I went to Jerusalem to dry out, to toughen up, to learn to live ardently and spontaneously. That I knew nothing about Israel, had not even a basic mental sketch of its geography or culture, did not bother me. I wrote long journal entries about facing the void and creating art, life, out of emptiness.
It took less than the twenty minutes I spent waiting for my luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport, whose air was damp with August heat, whose snack bars were all closed (didn’t I know it was a fast day?) and whose clerks did not believe there were hotels in Arab East Jerusalem, to realize that “the void” was just the name I had given to my own ignorance. No place I had ever been was as full, as crushingly stuffed with life, detail or other people’s desire, as Jerusalem.
Jerusalem shares the logic of dreams. What I mean by this is not incandescent or obscure, only that this is a city in which you believe everything you see and hear. It is nothing like the newspapers make it seem. Not a map with red borders drawn and drawn again, though it is partly that. Not a river of peace, a stream of wealth or a mother’s comforting breast, as the Book of Isaiah describes it. Jerusalem is a dream city because there is no blueprint, no draft against which to measure or understand it. The streets are not orderly but twist, as a friend suggested, like the tissue of a brain. And certainly in my first weeks there I felt that Jerusalem was aware of my intrusion and was willfully protecting itself from me. The city undercut reason and the forward flow of time, as well as the functions of a compass—banal laws that I had taken for granted as effective regardless of borders. But to measure and to understand in dreams is meaningless—a busy street becomes a garden. A garden suddenly sprouts a tomb. A tomb reveals a child’s lost shoe, a patent-leather shoe with a broken buckle. Beside a bank of pay phones, an argument breaks out about the number that will really, truly, connect you with heaven. Crossing a street leads you to a new language, a new currency, a new god. Bells, sirens and recorded prayers circumscribe and cross the air. You choke on gasoline and smoke from burning trash, but turn a corner and you smell the dry, gentle olive trees, the aromatic grass. The hawking of wares unwinds past a stand of tall soldiers into a circling Sabbath dance, a white chain of song twisting over flat, old stones, and a girl and a boy with black eyes leading a donkey down a narrow road, the moon in their hair like milk, like silver beads, like crowns.
Jerusalem is also a city of traffic jams and discotheques, banks and vandals, of fashion and shops and terrible coffee. My first night there I paid seventy American dollars for a room with pigeons and a view of a wrecking ball. I was whistled and jeered at by boys no more than twelve years old. I was oppressed by heat, filth, noise, violent politics and streets that wore modernity like a dirty apron. I did not understand Hebrew or Arabic. And yet, I learned that anything could happen there. The air was thick with the impossible, and the food was saturated by it—such incredible fruits, I thought I was inventing them. And the people, perhaps because they dwell so perpetually in the uncertain and unclear, believe purely, without hesitation, in whatever it is they believe; it is not the content but the form that matters. How many times did an Israeli, Jewish, Muslim or Christian turn from me, disgusted by the flaccid, bumbling argument I took for logic. “Americans,” each would say, nearly spitting. “You don’t know what you think.” Like figures in a dream, Jerusalemites were powerful, certain, strange, all seeming to know more.
Arieh was legally but not entirely blind. I was never certain what he could and could not see, and he liked it that way. At the time I knew him, he had a magnifying screen that enlarged the letters on a printed page to several inches in height. He always recognized me when I approached him and claimed to see my face, but I don’t believe he could distinguish my features. When I imagined his world I saw ghostly planes of faces and hands, as through squinted eyes, reduced to extremes of light and shadow. He could not see inanimate objects very well, and his hands, when he was seated in his university bedroom, always moved over the surfaces of his small dresser and table, hunting out a comb or tin of tea. Blindness had come late in life to Arieh. Before it, he had been an air force pilot and an intelligence officer. He had spied in Lebanon. During the early years of the personal computer he had worked abroad as a communications engineer. He spoke more than ten languages, if you include mathematics and computer codes. He played the guitar incessantly, singing out in Spanish, his favorite, and also in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, German and French. He lived masterfully, knew how to talk to people and to cause laughter. The day we met he had convinced five of his cousins to take him to the zoo to visit the turtles. For this occasion he stood waiting, leaning on a tall staff, wearing a bed sheet, which, due to his enormous stature, barely reached his knees. On his head he had circled a braided vine. His hair hung long, black and roughly coiled over his shoulders, and his beard pushed jaggedly toward his chest. He seemed to be naked beneath his sheet, and it struck me that, as strange as this man appeared, we were dressed alike.
“Who are you?” I asked, and he answered in a low voice, “I’m the King,” as if nothing were so obvious, “I’m the King of kings.”
I don’t think it is a coincidence that prophesy and faith run parallel to a long history of blindness in Jerusalem. The blind man, losing his access to the visual world, discovers in its place a vision of the invisible. Trachoma, a contagious and cruel scarring of the cornea, still ravages eyes in poor communities; it was endemic in Palestine in the nineteenth century and probably long before. The Viennese ophthalmologist Avraham Albert Ticho was sent to Jerusalem by a Zionist organization based in Frankfurt to open an eye clinic in 1912. He established his home and practice in a house outside the walls of the old city so that he was not confined to any one community and could treat trachoma in the rich and the poor, in Jewish and Muslim patients. Before his death, in 1960, he attained an almost heroic status as he relieved from darkness families who had suffered generations of blindness. Nevertheless, I have never met so many blind men as there, in the gold city. As a result, neither have I met, before or after, so many readers of signs.
The archetype of the blind prophet bears, unfortunately, little resemblance to reality. My own grandfather went blind in his late forties, and he was not a man of vision. He ate and slept and swallowed countless medications. For all the time I knew him, he was very ill. Once, though, when he was in hospital, plugged and tapped into the dialysis machine, his brother-in-law Saul came to visit him, and my grandfather saw him in every detail—pleated pants and red plaid shirt, white hair and broad forehead, square, thick glasses—although the pupils of my grandfather’s eyes were solid, milky white.
The story of Saul, how my grandfather had seen him—it must have been early in the course of his blindness—struck me as a true miracle, and I wanted it to happen again. I wanted more than anything for my grandfather, my Zaidy Moe, to see me and see that I had grown much taller, to see the tiny gold star he bought for me hanging from a chain around my neck and to be less sad. I begged God to help me. I argued that He had managed it once, so He could surely do it again, make Zaidy see the world. Hadn’t the Saul incident been a sign, an omen? But on this matter God remained perversely silent, and He did not heal my grandfather’s blank, white eyes.
Arieh’s blindness never seemed to bind or frustrate him. He was like a magician, always performing, always in absolute control. Under his command ordinary things could sprout wings and fly. He knew how to access the secret compartments hidden in everyday experience, and he taught me how to see them and how to step inside and lose myself in them.
“Like all Semitic languages,” he explained, “Hebrew is based on a three-letter root system. Almost every word in Hebrew is an arrangement of three consonants around a pattern of vowels. Once you know the root of a word, it is usually not difficult to figure out how that root will look as a verb, noun or adjective. Even colors share a form. Red is adom, yellow is tzahov, and blue is cakhol.
“Take a root word, like kelev, dog (in the Hebrew: כלב ). Now break the root into two parts by doubling the center letter ( כל לב ). You have two new words now, col and lev, which in Hebrew mean ‘all’ and ‘heart.’ Each word is built out of smaller bricks of words. In these building blocks of language you can decipher true meaning. The world was built of them, and that is why God, the creator, is called the Word.” When I was in my room again, I tried it on my own with the word adam ( אדם ), meaning “man.” I divided it into its parts, ( דם אד ) ad and dam, which mean “vapor” and “blood.” The blood and the breath, the body and the soul. Each word broke apart into its purer elements. It felt like chemistry or alchemy.
Arieh and I lived in the same student dormitory, his room just one floor below mine. Blind students are invited to study free of tuition at the Hebrew University, and Arieh took advantage of the opportunity. Officially, he was retraining, becoming an academic, but in fact, Arieh was at the university biding his time in Jerusalem, preparing for the moment when the Holy City would be ready for redemption. It is against the Jewish law to proselytize or to convert non-Jews to Judaism, but it is considered a good deed of the highest order to bring a Jewish atheist back to God. Arieh took this duty seriously and fulfilled it, I am sure, beyond the wildest imaginings of the hopeful rabbis who had first convinced him of his purpose.
Unwittingly, I became a fixture in Arieh’s show. It began with conversation over a cup of tea, a lesson in Hebrew, visits to his room to look up a text or poem he wanted to share with me. After several weeks of these innocent conversations, Arieh asked me to sit on a chair in the open doorway of his room in the student hall, “When they see you,” he explained, “they will be drawn in.” And ridiculously, it was true; they came—young Israeli men in soldiers’ uniforms, off duty from guarding the gates of the university. They would step into Arieh’s room, looking uncertain, which Israelis never allow themselves to be, and look back and forth between me and Arieh and say hello, usually in Hebrew or French.
Then Arieh would introduce himself and light his pipe, a slow process. First, he would have to find the pipe. If he wore a shirt with a pocket, it would be in there. If he wore a T-shirt instead, which was more often the case, the pipe would be leaning against some object on the dresser or little table, where an electric kettle, a hotplate, instant coffee and a jar of sugar always stood. Because he could not see something as small as a pipe, his hands would wander, touching lightly the surfaces of anything they found, seeking the curved warmth of the pipe. Then Arieh would find the Turkish tobacco in its silver paper pouch with the picture of a ship on the flap. Arieh would dip the pipe into the tobacco, touch it to see that it was packed, scoop a little more, then tap again until everything was as it should be.
All this time he would be talking, asking the name of his guest and discovering who the young man was and how he liked the world through which he moved. They would laugh together as men do who find they understand one another and can be at ease. Then a pause, a scratch and hush as Arieh lit a match and sucked deeply at his pipe until the tiny shreds began to smolder. Silence; then Arieh would sigh outward a slow, blue breath. All this would have elapsed over ten or fifteen minutes, during which time I would remain quiet, trying to understand some of their Hebrew. If it was French, which I understood well, or Arabic, which I did not know at all, I looked out the window at the students passing under the shadows of the little trees. By now the room would smell distinctly of the marijuana that rose just under the tobacco smoke. The guest would be asked whether he cared for a cigarette that Arieh had rolled himself, and he would grin because, after all, the guest was only on a break from his post at the gate, or was between classes, but the guest would assent, and I would be introduced, and he would allow himself to stare at me and shake my hand or kiss it because in that small, barren room I was beautiful in a way that I have never been outside it. Men in that part of the world have eyes that range from gold-brown to green-gold, with a liquid quality, making them seem like colored stones beneath the ripples of clear water. Arieh made all of us glow; it was as though we had never seen eyes before, or skin, and we could stare and stare and never have enough.
While he rolled the tobacco and marijuana into a tight paper, Arieh would instruct the guest to read a passage from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, and then to translate what he read into French or English for my benefit. If it was a soldier in the room with us, he first placed his cap on his head and then opened the book Arieh handed to him at a random page, and he would begin to read. An inexplicable number of young men found themselves hesitating on the threshold of Arieh’s room and suddenly seated inside it, smoking, reading Torah, baring their naked hearts. In this manner Arieh cultivated a following, even waged what you might call a campaign. They called themselves “the crows” and spent hours between classes making posters that announced Arieh’s divine calling, and explaining that the time had come to follow the Messiah into light.
There is a disorder called “Jerusalem syndrome” that affects 1 percent of visitors to Jerusalem each year. Gender and race have nothing to do with it, although a Judeo-Christian upbringing helps. Some of the victims come to Israel with a predisposition for psychosis, but four or five people each year have no previous mental history, according to Dr. Bar-El, the man who first gave a name to Jerusalem syndrome. One day, all of a sudden, normal tourists will begin to dress in white sheets and make proclamations on street corners. They will speak in tongues or spend hours writing prophecies. They will stand motionless, with their eyes rolled heavenward, or wave signs and warnings from bridges over the highway. One travel magazine records that “afflicted tourists have been found wandering in the Judean desert wrapped in hotel bed sheets or crouched at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, waiting to birth the infant Jesus” or “demanding that humanity become calmer, purer, and less materialistic.” The messiahs, John the Baptists and Marys usually persist in their preaching for five to seven days and then recover entirely, but while the victims are in a delusional state, they will truly believe.
During the year I lived in Jerusalem, I met several messiahs. They were not difficult to find. At Jaffa Gate, in the old city, there is one establishment in particular, the Petra Hostel, that seems to be a magnet for them. The little common room, with its very high, echoing ceilings in the style of the old arched and domed buildings of the city, always holds a few nervous figures at low bridge tables, drinking coffee from disposable cups. These are not young travelers, light with marijuana and the open road, but older men and women who have found their way to Jerusalem despite, or maybe because of, their despair. They reside in the Petra Hostel semipermanently. When I visited there I found Oliver, a man I had encountered in several Jerusalem cafés, talking in an animated fashion about his life as a world-famous economist. His small, round face was pressed close to the face of his companion, and it glowed with a light sweat. “And then they sent me to Geneva to work on the problem of socialist finance,” he was saying. The first time I met him, he was an artist creating a series of illustrations for Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. The second time he was a war veteran, and he tried to convince me that we had met before on a beach in Malta. Oliver was delusional but very intelligent and also kind. His companion that evening was a newly arrived messiah, quiet and calm, identifiable only by his bed sheet, beard and solemn eyes.
The genial atmosphere was interrupted when a plump woman with wild hair and a sour look burst through a door at the end of the room. Marching over to Oliver and the messiah, she yelled, “I am trying to get some fucking sleep.” She pointed an unsteady finger. “And you . . . you . . . keep talking and laughing and keeping me awake.” She wore a white nightie with a pink heart painted over the left breast. “Do you know how hard it is to be a female messiah? Do you know what it’s like to have to save the whole world?” This last phrase emerged hoarsely. Then, turning on her heel, the female messiah stomped back to her room in a storm of expletives and left us all in a bewildered silence. “Poor girl,” Oliver explained, “she’s completely mad.”
Most of the messiahs have the restless aspect of the lost and homeless; it makes you circle a little wider when you pass them on the street and fills you with a queasy pity. What made Arieh different was that he had received his calling from a group of rabbis and students of Torah who supported him in his endeavor. He did not share the haunted, lonely look of the other messiahs. When Arieh lost his vision, he lost his means of employing his genius. He could no longer see a computer screen. He definitely could no longer fly a plane; he couldn’t even read, paint or shave his beard himself. A genius without a purpose is less than nothing. He is all pent-up energy, no power. In a remote suburb of Tel Aviv, in his parents’ apartment, stifled by their attention, by his own incapacity for action, Arieh became disconsolate and mean.
That is how the Chabad found him, and they offered him their vision to replace his own. The Chabad are an order of orthodox Jewry who represent and follow the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. That revered reformer and leader was born in Poland in 1698, and he devoted his life there to the study of Torah and to a war against pessimism and poverty. He worked to make Torah available and accessible to the “second-rate Jews” who could not read or study, and to infuse a bookish religion with an appreciation for the power and beauty of the natural world. He believed that the happier and wiser people were, the more likely the Moshiach would come. The Chabad make a practice of joy. On the Sabbath, they dress in white and gold and dance and sing for hours by the Western Wall. On Thursdays, at Zion Square in Jerusalem’s fashionable downtown tourist district, you can see them dancing to music from a cassette player attached to loud portable speakers. Only men, of course: mostly small, with faces like flowers, flushed and shining, grinning with effort, suffused with love. The Chabad found Arieh, recognized his ability to enchant, his insight and intelligence, and resurrected him in an astonishing form: as a candidate for the messianic throne. There is a tradition of such candidates in Jerusalem. In the crowded streets of Mea She’arim, it is accepted, even expected, that between the wigs, the loaves of bread, the wares of vending stalls, you will see posters, buttons or bumper stickers bearing the wide smiles of white-bearded messiahs.
In the Old Testament and in the Jewish interpretive and mystical texts, there is an emphasis on the importance of the spoken word. Speaking is the cause, not the antithesis, of an event or action. The words of the prophet become true because they are spoken, not the reverse. Prophecy is not witchcraft; it does not foretell the future, but it creates it. The Hassidim, of whom the Chabad are one sect, elect and train messiahs because divine revelation requires human participation, preparation, will and desire.
In order for the Messiah to come, it is said, all Jewish men must study Torah because the Messiah’s birth is not a random event like a meteor but an answer to a plea that must be made by every mouth at once: come to us, oh Lord, our God. This is why the thin, waxy wives of Mea She’arim are willing to bear ten, twelve, fourteen children. The more progeny, the higher the chances that one of them will be the golden one, the savior who will obliterate hunger, exhaustion, filth, and who will raise the lost children, parents, spouses and siblings from their graves. Is it surprising, then, that a man such as Arieh—three-quarters blind, with his giant, nearly seven-foot stature, his long, black, tangled hair and beard and his pipe full of blue, sweet smoke—should present himself as a perfect candidate? Or that people accustomed to thinking in terms of the infinite, the majestic and sublime, should see him and believe that yes, yes, he might be the one?
The Chabad opened the mystical books for him. This is no mean honor. A man, (only men are entitled) must be thirty-five years old and intimate with the Old Testament before he is even permitted to begin studying the mystical texts, the Kaballah. Access is not easily granted because the powerful ideas of the mystics must be protected from minds that would misunderstand and misuse them. (I met a doctoral student at the Hebrew University who had a grant to masquerade as orthodox and spy on several Kaballah groups in order to report to the university on the texts that were studied.) But Arieh was inducted, initiated. He was made aware of his powers of healing. The infertile daughters of pious men were brought into his presence to kiss his hands. He became the leader of a band of adolescent boys who had left the fold and showed no inclination of returning. It was Arieh’s responsibility to bring them back to Torah, back to love.
Why should a city create its own distinct madness? Surely the psychiatrists and scientists suspect that there is more at work in Jerusalem syndrome than a chemical or genetic propensity, more at stake than this rave or that delusion. I want to argue that the messiahs are part of a rich, mystical fabric. Israelis call themselves sabras, prickly pears, hard and thorny on the outside but on the inside succulent and sweet. Messiahs, I think, are the blooms on the cactus—infrequent but beautiful, aesthetic rather than practical, miraculous in their own right, bearers of fruit. I believe the city needs messiahs, that the city even cultivates them. How many times did a stranger stop me in the street or a soldier detain me at the gate to the university to ask, seeing my pale skin, when I had come to Jerusalem, and whether I liked it? Better or worse than America? Will you stay here? Are you going to make aliyah (literally, to step up or ascend, to immigrate)? Your family is important, but it is more important that all Jews return to the Holy Land so that Hamoshiach will come. These strangers, these soldiers and students, were not speaking to me out of political interest. They were stricken, lovesick for God.
Were they crazy? Maybe. But after all, what isn’t crazy? War between cousins? The exchange of one dead or beaten body for another? Inquisitions and military checkpoints? The degradation of peasants whose family farms are claimed randomly by the state? Racial slurs? A countryside ripe with mines, so that anyone walking in the verdant northern hills risks setting off the shards of fire and metal? Hunger and homelessness? That only terrorists are willing to build schools and hospitals for the wretched, on the condition, always on condition, that the wretched sacrifice their sons to blind violence? Isn’t this madness? Or is madness the delusion that love and fraternity are possible between nations, the delusion of a peace that is unshakable and true?
The messianic, eschatological history of the Hassidim in Jerusalem stands in opposition to the political history of Zionism. The Zionist ideal was biblical, but it had to do with the secular claims to land and language, not with faith. It was the impulse behind the kibbutz and the moshav, communities of farmers, of strong men and women with their hands in the earth. Zionism was romantic, lyrical, physical. It produced the extensive pipelines and pumps that funneled water from the Sea of Galilee and from underground sources out into the unscrolling desert, nurturing life there. Zionist sweat produced the tree-by-tree reclamation of the desert. Its leaders called for an end to the sequestered life of the European shtetl. No more days spent dryly with books and scriptures. No more dark clothing and pale skin. What the world and history had denied them—access to land, to the true, productive work of self-sustainment and communion with the earth—the Zionists sought to establish for themselves.
If you look at early photographs of Jewish settlers in Palestine, you will see a people in love with the sun, bronzed, muscled, dressed for physical work in a uniform of khaki shorts and blue shirts. Men and women worked side by side. On the kibbutz, children were raised together in separate buildings from their parents. During and after the Second World War, when thousands of children came to Palestine without parents, or with parents so broken in spirit they could not care for them, whole kibbutz orphanages sprang up—hundreds of children learning to sing Hebrew songs and till the dry soil. The shtetl wall was the ultimate boundary. Beyond its limits, suspicion dominated. Contact with the world outside the Jewish communities was minimal. These were communities ravaged by pogroms, violence and fear. The Zionists wanted to break down the barriers between family and family, town and town. How else to create a lasting nation out of a people that had been homeless for thousands of years? How else to teach themselves to die for one another, if it came to that? Sometimes, in a dark mood, I think that is what a modern country is: men and women capable of killing and dying for one another, no more, no less.
The Zionist movement never belonged to Hassidic Jewry because Hassidic Jews do not concern themselves with countries or with wars. Their god is their king, and they weigh each word of every law He has passed on to them. They make no claim to the land or the language except that they may pray on one, and in the other, respectively.
The last time we drank tea together in Arieh’s room at the university, we were drawing plans for the Third Temple, drawing with words. A great glass dome. Music at all hours. Gold staircases and rooms for prayer and for dancing. Arieh insisted on helicopters equipped with speakers that would broadcast his music. I had taken a book from the library, called something like The Phenomenology of Architecture, because it contained an essay about the claim religious noise makes on a community. I read several passages aloud, invoking the bells of cathedrals and the laments of muezzin, whose music penetrated the walls of houses and even a sleeping person’s ear. This had been my experience in Jerusalem, where the week began Sunday at five a.m. with the first Muslim call to prayer, “God is greater than sleep”; was punctuated by the hourly bells of churches; and fell into a dead silence Friday evening at sundown, following a siren that announced the beginning of the Sabbath. God’s music did not request an audience but demanded it.
Arieh was only half-listening. “Yes.” His face was dreamy; he was beyond where I could reach him. “There will be amplifiers, speakers. Music will play constantly, guitars, strings singing, and everyone will listen. I will be there in my dome of glass, and she will be there, my guitar. We will sing and sing and sing. And you will have all the gold and the jewels. Women will have their reward when I am king. All the money will belong to you, all the finery you could want.”
I tried to explain how useless these things seemed even now, and how much more undesirable they would be after Judgment Day.
“Women want these things,” he said, dismissing my objection with a half-wave of his hand; his hand continued on its path, traveling in its blind way toward the neck of his guitar.
I liked to think this way. The imaginary structures of Arieh’s Third Temple, which rose frail and graceful out of the bleak landscape of reality, reminded me of hours spent with my Zaidy Moe. He was fearsome, sensitive to and intolerant of loud noises. He was quick to raise his voice, to reprehend and punish, but because I was the first grandchild, the only one he had known before he lost his vision completely, and perhaps because I was the quietest, preferring word or board games to make-believe, he took time to talk to me about my world and how to make it better. One afternoon in my grandparents’ white kitchen, my grandfather tapping his perfect fingernails on the white Formica table, we invented a school tens of stories high, with swimming pools and balconies and great windows for the sun. We decided that since teachers only knew about one subject each, and since students knew about each of the subjects, having made plentiful notes in various colored notebooks, there should be time each week for students to teach teachers so that they could learn a thing or two they didn’t already know. My grandfather blinked his milky eyes and chuckled but then became quite serious.
“But this is pretend,” he said. “You must work very hard in school.
Respect your teachers and learn everything you can.”
“Zaidy, of course I will.” But he was lost again. A deep frown and a crease in his pale forehead. As long as I could remember he had been all whiteness: skin, high forehead, pupils, hair. My grandfather’s account of his life, the story he must have told himself again and again, though I never heard it directly from him, I now know was a long catalog of sorrows. He was a poor child in the wintry city of Montreal. His father died when he was seven years old, in the first years of the Depression. So he and his brother woke early in the morning, buttoned their coats, their shirts and their boots if they had any, and went to the factories to earn what they could. In the factories every kind of language was spoken: Russian and Polish, Ukrainian, Armenian and German, English and French. And, of course, Yiddish. Most everyone could understand one another in Yiddish. But there was little talking. The machines clattered and hummed, and the workers sang to give meaning to the rhythm of the labor, the stories people tell themselves when they have only half their attention to spare.
There were steam presses for ironing, bolts of cloth to measure and to cut. When he was older he could work the large machinery, watch the flowers and stripes of cotton as they spun through the rollers and the blades, becoming clothes. He stole and sold scraps or mended his own clothes with them. Later he would learn to make hats, shaping felt and fur over wooden blocks. In time he would be foreman, pushing the workers harder, faster; in the evenings he rode the bus home, where he beat success into his children with the hard head of a broom. Then he lay for hours in the close dark of his bedroom, his head still throbbing with the factory’s pulse. But before all that, when he was still tender, he worked twelve hours if he could, dropping what he earned into the cupped palm of his mother, who was also working in a factory. Her eyes were tired and red in the morning. After his father died his mother’s face became a strange, leathery mask. She mourned forever, never learning how to smile again. His mother’s spirit seemed to him like a body badly crushed—she was flattened, broken, waiting stiffly for her end to come.
My grandfather could not sustain his laugh because there was no room in his world for pleasure. Imagination might cause you to lose focus, to lose your footing, and the world would not tolerate mistakes. Arieh stood in opposition, even as a possible solution, to my Zaidy and his world, characterized by meanness and paucity. Arieh loved long, lazy hours; his favorite word was sababah, street Arabic for “everything is good, mellow, A-okay.” He would drag me to a park overlooking, in the distance, the brown hills of Jordan, and we would sit beside a bronze sculpture of the tree of life, eating falafel, watching the crows shake out their heavy plumage and spiral up in twos and threes and fives. Arieh would smoke his pipe and petition me for stories, especially stories about kings, and I would tell him again about the blind princess in the mountains of Japan who learned to see with her fingers, or about the king of Togatoga, who had to whisper his secrets into a hole in the earth. It seemed so easy then to lie with the sun on my skin, with my eyes closed, feeling the grass under my neck and the ants filing over my ankles attending to their ant business, noticing our sentences becoming shorter and the pauses between them longer until there were mostly pleasurable stretches of silence and the sun slipped into one of these and drifted off to the far hemisphere that didn’t mean anything to us, and yet that meant everything.
That was Arieh’s power: if he could not change the world, he could make you see it differently; he could change the story of his life and yours into something enviable, delicate, serene. He created his life from scratch; he invented it. When he told me that he had cured a woman of cancer or that he’d taught a man to speak fluently in Hebrew just by blinking at him, I didn’t believe him. But he believed, and that was what was so astonishing, and what made his words, on some level, true. He made a reality, or at least a potential reality, of what my Zaidy could not even allow himself to imagine—a life that warmed frigid blood, that melted solid walls of enmity built by war and poverty and cruelty, that reconciled sworn adversaries, that undid knots of hatred. Hatred and fear, Arieh knew, were the bonds that kept Jerusalem—and everywhere—from glory. If Arieh was crazy, it was an admirable, noble kind of lunacy that fed on and generated love. He was free. And if Arieh was free despite his illness, his strangeness, the loss of his job and social status, then everyone could be free, even my grandfather. Even I.
But in the end, imagination failed him, and my Zaidy Moe was right. Although Arieh was a student, I don’t believe he ever attended any classes. Complaints were filed and piled up: “He plays his guitar all through the night, and the same song, over and over; the hallway always smells of marijuana; he wears bed sheets in the halls and scares the girls.” Arieh received these complaints looking pale, drawn. Reality disfigured him, sallowed his cheeks. In October, I left for a three-week visit to Turkey. When I returned to Jerusalem, Arieh had vanished.
I saw him once more, at his parents’ home in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. He telephoned a month after I had returned from my travels. Though he talked about walking by the ocean for hours each day and about a girlfriend he had met there, he sounded lonely. His voice would simply dry up toward the end of a thought, and a long silence would follow. I took a bus to Tel Aviv and then to the suburbs, and I found him terribly diminished.
If you take a bus from downtown Jerusalem to downtown Tel Aviv—less than two hours’ ride through the dry hills around Jerusalem, past Bedouin camps made of blankets and stones where donkeys and camels roped to posts twitch their ears and tails, down toward the lush lemon and orange groves and, finally, toward the salt-blue Mediterranean, where the air is damp and heavy with the sea’s sound—you will notice as you step onto the platform of the noisy central bus terminal that your entire body sighs with relief. All the tension from the last few weeks in Jerusalem’s narrow, pinched streets slides away. It feels as though you had not taken a breath in so long that you had forgotten about breathing altogether. Then you alight in Tel Aviv, and everyone is sucking in great, wasteful, windy breaths. Everywhere cafés and clubs and street performers. Everywhere sex and skin and sweat. Everywhere crèpes with chocolate, Coca-Cola, flea markets, artists, cats, gardens and cars. In Tel Aviv, gods take a step back and heroes walk firmly on the boardwalk with the rest of us. In Tel Aviv, messiahs are delusional and nothing more.
Cut off from a community of believers, Arieh had regressed into a mere madman, cursing at his mother because he claimed she was more annoying than a man could bear. Even a man gifted with divine insight? I asked him. But he refused to see it that way. She had betrayed him with her motherly worry, her drawn look. She saw him as the world saw him, and he could not forgive her. To occupy himself and to get out of the house, he spent his mornings visiting the bereaved—there are many families mourning the early deaths of their sons and daughters—and he failed to understand why these strangers did not welcome him as he presented himself, wiry, tangled, blind, at the thresholds of their homes.
Together we stood on the stoop of a suburban duplex, before an empty-eyed mother whose twenty-two-year-old daughter was dead. The air was cool, and we stood in bleak silence. At last she stepped aside and allowed us to press past her into a beige-and-gold sitting room where her family sat together on six or eight low mourners’ chairs. They all stared at us as we came in, then turned away, and I felt their wrenching grief. It was in the air as thick as smoke, as real as the clang of bells. Arieh managed to say something in Hebrew and to flash one of his smiles, but it was as if he had said nothing. They paid us as little attention as they would a cold wind that has come in through an open door that is not even worth the trouble to close. I felt trapped, unable to speak or move or look grief in the eye. My blood pumped harder and harder, and I wanted to run from that bright room, from its framed photographs and vases of yellow dahlias, from its two clocks that sounded together like an uncanny tin heartbeat.
In that room, Arieh’s impotence, his inability to speak to these people’s sorrow, became very clear, and I was ashamed to be there with him, to have intruded. In Jerusalem, Arieh’s appearance in a mourning stranger’s home would have felt different, natural, an act of love and hope. The unexpected is sacred in Jerusalem, and the city is able to embrace and contain all that is irrational, disorderly and shaped by blind intuition. Jerusalem could sustain and contain Arieh, who loved the world’s—and his own—strangeness, powerlessness.
At the bus stop, where I waited to return to Jerusalem, Arieh and I both knew, in our own way, that we would never see each other again. On the plastic bench in the bus-stop shelter—just posts, really, with a corrugated metal canopy—we talked of the weather, the ride home. When the bus pulled up in a squeal of brakes and an effusion of acrid exhaust, I stood and Arieh grabbed my arm, pulled me close to him and kissed my cheek. I tried to hide my revulsion and to soften my recoil, but he either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. He grinned and danced away waving, shouting, “Aha, I got you.”
And then he was gone.
When Arieh was in the fire of his faith, he made the rest of us, his friends and followers, glow also. He made us feel the heat and power of the mind’s possibilities, of the places we were too afraid or too sane to go. But we despised him when he cooled again, and we felt ashamed. Arieh, we saw suddenly, was only half-made, twisted up, the product of neither utility nor art. And because we did not share his vision, because we had only borrowed it, we could not see that he was not halfway between but both at once—that one depended on the other—wise man, fool.
Reesa Grushka earned her MFA at Cornell University. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Five Points, Web Del Sol, The Missouri Review, The American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Cuizine, and The Best American Travel Writing 2007. She is also the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Prague Summer Writing Workshops, and grants from the Money for Women/Barbara “Deming Memorial Fund and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She is currently somewhat itinerant, and working on a first book. Her website is reesagrushka.wordpress.com.