Arts & Culture
Naftali Simon never showed his face to the woman he loved even a minute longer than was absolutely necessary. I would like to believe in the possibility that writing such words on paper can make them true, that when Naftali … Read More
Naftali Simon never showed his face to the woman he loved even a minute longer than was absolutely necessary.
I would like to believe in the possibility that writing such words on paper can make them true, that when Naftali sat across from me today on the hard edge of a couch whose plump cushions could have kept him all afternoon, he saw in my face a clock counting down the seconds to his departure, and bolted before he could blush. I have seen such things happen before, men confronting their desires by covering them up and running away. And I knew that Naftali often ran away, sometimes for a week and sometimes a year, in quest of experiences that were compatible with the rovings of his mind. It was not easy to locate the passions that inspired his odysseys; they took hold of him long before we ever met, possibly from the day he was born, on the freshly overturned earth of a vineyard in Petach Tikva, three days before the outbreak of the Six-day War. In the end it was always I who blushed, stammering out my broken Hebrew like a sick horse, wondering if this time he would stay long enough for the tea kettle to boil, or only for the water level to rise above the red line.
It was easy for me to love him without knowing him. He lived in Jerusalem, a city that belonged to my heart like no other. But that was not all. He was always changing his destiny, subverting it to make it serve him better. He would return to old places before moving to new ones. He would tell stories about his grandfather in the first person. When he spoke, he would fix his voice so that it would not rise above a whisper, and women would lean closer to listen–that is, I would lean closer to listen; and whatever it was that I heard, it was never enough, it was always just the beginning. The rest I had to take on faith, like a religion whose only requirement of its followers was to fill in the blanks. I was constantly creating Naftali anew. Once he invited me over for dinner. To settle my nerves I spent the whole day shopping for a gift. I went to Steimatzky’s and scoured the place for a book I thought he might not already own. Naftali’s apartment was crammed with books. I knew this without ever having seen it. At the moshav where his parents still lived, the entire tool shed was given over to his collection. Next to an old plough stood a first edition of Elie Wiesel’s Night, in Yiddish. I had not known this book was originally written in Yiddish, but Naftali told me. It was information that flowed from his blue eyes like an embrace. Before I could respond he was out the door again, walking to his car with the key already in his hand. From the back he always looked like an old man. Needless to say, it was not a sit-down dinner. It was not really a dinner at all. Naftali sat in the kitchen, chopping cucumbers and tomatoes. I watched him, standing up. His hands were pale and smooth, not a rough spot on them. Diaspora hands. The tips of his fingers were unusually flat, the result, perhaps, of having spent too much time pressed against his temples. While I observed these details my horse’s mouth galloped forward, slowing down only to correct a mispronounced word or ask to be reminded of a forgotten one. The more clumsy my Hebrew became, the faster I charged. I spoke about everything and nothing at the same time–the long lines at the post office, the reign of King David, Central Park, walking the ramparts of the Old City. With every attempt to create harmony out of the chaos I knew Naftali lived with, I only created more chaos. I could have given up right there, admitted to myself that while we may have shared the same roots, there was no point in carrying on like an archaeologist, trying to produce evidence of an unbroken past. But at that moment Naftali pointed to the living room window that overlooked the Israel Museum and said, "Do you know why the Shrine of the Book is shaped like a womb? To represent our national will to survive." There was bread to go with the salad, and hummus. I studied the pieces of cucumber and tomato on my plate like a puzzle, trying to find in each piece a part of Naftali I could understand. Had we been speaking English, I would have asked him more about our national will to survive, and about the oleander tree growing outside his window. Cannily, I would have linked his fingers to the food in my mouth and searched his eyes for the kibbutz from which they came. "Hm," I replied. "And to see it from your window." I got up to fetch the book I had brought him, a Hebrew translation of some Philip Roth novel I had never read. I don’t remember which one it was because it was such an empty gesture, giving Naftali someone else’s words instead of my own. When I handed it to him he looked uncomfortable, as though this physical act of transfer required more of a commitment than he was willing to give. After removing the tissue paper he whispered, "Thank you, but you shouldn’t have gone to the trouble. I’ll return it as soon as I’m through." "But it’s yours to keep," I insisted. "It’s nothing, really." "Well, we’ll see. Todah rabah." The telephone rang then and I was left alone, utterly. Naftali went into his bedroom to answer it and closed the door behind him half-way. Through the space I could see him stretched out on his bed, speaking quietly into the receiver, and for a moment the temptation of flight was so strong I had to hold onto the edge of the table to resist it. Naftali returned to me a few minutes later, a warm glow on his face. "Would you like to go for a walk?" he asked, already reaching for his jacket. Our dinner still sat on the table, half-eaten, the water glasses empty from never having been filled. I did not want to go for a walk. I did not want to follow Naftali as he walked, impervious to the intimacy that emanated from the Jerusalem air, straight up the alley that led to my apartment building. For this was what he meant when he made the suggestion, that the evening was over and it was time for me to go home. To protect himself from any unwanted entanglement he would walk with his hands in his pockets and head down; if any human closeness threatened to evolve along the way, he would shake it off by asking how my family was back in America, my mother, father, two brothers, and pet dog. We were separated only by an alley, but we were not neighbors. Our streets, named after rabbis of competing dynasties, were parallel to each other and as such, would never meet. The alley had steps, which Naftali took two at a time. I kept his pace and tried to catch the excess breath he exhaled from his effort. "How is your family?" I asked him pre-emptively as we neared the top. We were in the street again before he answered. "Thank God, everyone is fine," he said. "B’seder gamur." Very fine. The sound of a piano emerged from an apartment window as we passed it, and Naftali and I turned our heads toward the music at the same time. "I can hear this woman from my living room every night," he said, stopping for a moment to listen. "She knows Schubert very well." The music flowed from the window with an energy I did not welcome. If the window above us had been closed we still would have been able to hear it, but it would have reached us like a whisper, a warm breath in our ears, and Naftali might have seen me the rest of the way home. I smiled faintly. "And I can hear her from my bedroom." He left for America the following week, to study Yiddish. That’s how he was, it did not even seem strange to me. During his absence, I pursued my studies at the university with unusual vigor. In a single day I read Herzl’s Altneuland and signed up to tutor a blind Arab in conversational English. In a course on the Holocaust, I listened in terror as the professor set the stage for the destruction of Europe’s Jews, then scurried down the hall to the cafeteria for a bowl of matzo-ball soup. I was on my way to the library when I saw Miriam walking towards me through the turnstile, her false teeth smiling at me in two perfectly straight rows. At the sight of her, my plans for the rest of the day disintegrated. Gently, I guided Miriam by the elbow and led her into the hallway. "Shalom, Miriam!" I shouted to make sure she heard. "Are you on your way home?" Miriam was on her way home, and I with her. The bus ride could not have been slower, taking us through French Hill and the narrow streets of Me’ah She’arim like a tour bus with a long itinerary. On a normal day there would have been lots to see, not thick forests of spruce or deep wadis obscured by dustclouds, but laundry flapping from clotheslines, black-bordered death notices tacked to billboards, and rows of public housing units testifying to the Jews’ return to Jerusalem. But I was too impatient to focus on anything other than where we were going, to the library in Miriam’s living room, from which Naftali had acquired several of the rarest books in his collection. We sat on the couch surrounded by books and looked at pictures from a photo album. Many of the faces were young, and did not get older as the pages piled up. "This is Lili, in Frankfurt," Miriam said, pointing to a young girl with pigtails on the very last page. "We used to tell people we were twins." I stared hard at the picture, then tried to shake my head free of the image. "Do you have any photos from when you served in the Palmach?" I asked. She closed the album. "Somewhere there is one, of me on a horse belonging to the British High Commissioner. I remember this man well. He took a liking to me, but not to what I was fighting for. When he came to Palestine to visit with a delegation of Zionists, he told them he didn’t think the Jews would survive much longer. He told them this and still they offered him sugar with his tea." I let my eyes wander over to the bookshelves, looking for a gap that Naftali’s hands may have made. To my disappointment, I found many gaps made by many hands and a stepladder in the corner that Miriam’s late husband Weli had used whenever he needed a quote from Heine. "Where have all the books gone?" I asked. "Ach, the books. To whoever wants them, mostly dealers, some liebhabers. It was Weli’s wish," she replied. "My eyes were only good when he was alive." "Can I ask in which category you would place Naftali?" "Naftali?" "Naftali." I couldn’t say his name often enough. "In the category of liebhabers, of course," Miriam said, squeezing my arm. "The passion in that man could fill the national archives at Givat Ram." My mother called and asked if I was seeing anyone. "Don’t be shy about it," she insisted, already suspecting something. "I was shy with my own mother and we didn’t talk for twenty years. Come on, who’s the lucky man?" I wanted to tell my mother everything, but there was nothing to tell. "His name is Naftali," I said. "Like the tribe." "The tribe?" said my mother. "Where are you, in Africa? Tell me what he does, how he treats you. Is he in debt like all Israelis?" I thought of my conversation with Miriam and I said, "He’s got lots of interests, lots of passions. He collects books; he likes languages. But he always seems a little melancholy." I paused, expecting my mother to interrupt. And she did. "He sounds like a luftmentsch," she said, "a Jew with his head in the clouds. Just like your father, when I first met him." "Oh, he’s not like Dad at all," I assured her, picturing my father standing under the bright lights of his operating room, ready to cut open a patient’s heart. "He’s much more subtle." When Naftali returned from America, he did not call me. I discovered his return by accident, outside a fruit and vegetable stand in the center of town. There he was, filling a bag with apricots and squinting in the sun, while I stood one stall over, rifling through a crate of tomatoes. I saw him first, then waited for him to see me, knowing that it could not work any other way, that he would have to see me if I existed at all, nevermind that at that moment I existed only for him. The tomato man lifted my bag onto the scale, then tossed it back to me. "Four shekels," he said. As I was paying, I heard his voice. "In Israel, shopping outdoors is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Shalom, Dina." I looked up with my heart spinning in my head. "Shalom, Naftali," I said, with a rush of air. "Vus mocht a Yid?" It was the only Yiddish greeting I knew. Naftali acknowledged it with a soft smile and together we walked down the aisles of Machane Yehuda, the tents flapping above us like an endless wedding canopy. In front of a row of fish heads Naftali reached into his bag and pulled out an apricot, then turned to me and asked, "And how is your family?" The question endeared me to him as much as it made me want to cry. "B’seder gamur," I said. "I have forgotten what state they live in–Iowa?" "Ohio." Silently, I watched him rub the apricot against his shirt in preparation to eat it. It was hypnotic, like watching a pendulum swing; there was no urgency in the action, no tension of ambush. Everything about Naftali betrayed a calmness that I could only describe as anachronistic. Nobody in Israel was ever calm; and if there was ever an age when Jews had dared to be, it was certainly not in Naftali’s lifetime. For a moment I thought the apricot might pass from his hand to mine, a gesture that would have sustained me for years. But a second later it went into his mouth and disappeared down his throat. At some point the pit must have emerged, but not when I was looking. I am sure he did not swallow it. We walked further. An old beggar came up to us shaking a tin can, and Naftali dropped a shekel into it. "She’tihiye bari," he said, wishing him good health. It was time to talk about his trip. "How was New York?" I asked. Naftali considered the question, still focusing on the beggar nearby, then turned his blue eyes directly towards me to answer it. "The Yiddish at Yivo is not the Yiddish I know from Lvov," he said. "You know Yiddish from Lvov?" "My grandfather was born there." "Oh, I see." Although I did see, I still could not make myself seen to Naftali, and at these words I lost him. We walked a few more meters, side by side but not together. At the end of the market a bus pulled up and Naftali stepped onto it. "Are you going home?" he asked. It was his way of saying good-bye. "I’ve still got some shopping to do," I said, getting ready to watch him disappear again. "But let’s get together soon." "A zei gezunt," said Naftali, and he was gone. A man who was not Naftali called me on the telephone and invited me for a drink. I put on a skirt and walked down the street to the Laromme Hotel, passing on my way a fleet of towncars spiriting the prime minister off to an equally important engagement. Yair was waiting for me in the lobby, radiating good health and stability, a full head of brown curls framing his tanned face. We sat at a table in the hotel cafe and stared hard at each other. Yair asked me questions, and I answered them. "Do you have a boyfriend?" "No." "Do you work?" "No." "Did your parents buy you an apartment?" "No." Then it was my turn. "How do you know Miriam?" I asked. "Miriam, the yekke? I’m her accountant. Without those checks from Germany every month, she’d be in overdraft up to her knees." Yair stared at me even harder now, seeking favor. His eyes, like his hair, were a healthy brown, big and benevolent but nearly obscured by the lashes, which hung over them like palm fronds in the desert. "Germany is waiting for her to die so they can stop sending them." "May she live to 120." I liked Yair, and he liked me. In a single weekend we traveled all of Israel together, renting snorkeling gear in Eilat one day and picking wildflowers in the Golan Heights the next. The farther away we drove from Jerusalem, the freer I felt; the weight of that walled city fell from my shoulders like pomegranates from a tree until by the time we had reached our half-way point at Netania, I was giddy with wanderlust. Yair saw the eagerness in my face and took credit for it being there. At every falafel stand we stopped to snap photos. Along a coastal road past Ashkelon we came across an old water tower lying on its side, riddled by artillery shells. Around it were flowering trees and a little pond, and benches positioned to contemplate the ruins head-on. Yair and I sat down on one of these benches and threw pebbles at the rusty steel beams in front of us. "What war do you think this is from?" I asked, tilting my head back toward the sun. "’48, for sure," Yair replied. "We’re only a few hundred yards from the old border with Egypt." Lowering my head again, I looked all around me, half-expecting the Pyramids to appear over the horizon. Instead my eyes met a giant bronze man looming over a sycamore tree, his right hand clutching a grenade. I nudged Yair and pointed to the statue. "Who’s that?" For Yair, the spot where we were sitting was not new. He had seen the old water tower before, and the trees and pond and benches. On a high school field trip he had leaned against the feet of the bronze man and cracked sunflower seeds, and with his platoon during the army camped out in the citrus grove of a nearby kibbutz bearing his name. "That’s Mordechai Anilewitz," Yair explained. "He was the Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, just out of high school." He stood up from the bench and cocked his head in the opposite direction. "Yala. Let’s go get some lunch." We drove to a fish restaurant in Ashkelon and sat outside at a table overlooking the sea. In the sand below, beach umbrellas obscured the bodies of sun bathers while children played tirelessly in the water, screaming at the tops of their lungs. Turning my attention inland, I watched Yair tear off pieces of his napkin and release them over the rail. His fingers worked rapidly, like the legs of an industrious spider. When they slowed down again he turned to me and shrugged his shoulders. "It never snows in this country," he said. "There’s never enough napkins." The trip back to Jerusalem felt like a funeral procession. It was slow, labored, onerous. Yair’s car could barely make it up the hill leading into the city, and the dryness of the air forced me to summon up all the things I had to feel sad about. As we approached the central bus station, a number 9 Egged bus pulled out in front of us and we followed it all the way to Machane Yehuda, where it stopped to let off a handful of shoppers armed with collapsible carts before continuing on its way. Knowing this would be the last time Yair would drive me home, I did not mind the eternity it took to get there. At each red light I tried to make my intentions known. I told him it was time to return to my studies, and that I had an entire semester’s worth of course work to catch up on. I told him that I had applied for a job at the library sorting books, and that I had signed up for an intensive, three-hour-a-day Ulpan to improve my Hebrew. I told him these and other things, but what I could not tell him was the least convincing thing of all: that I could not see him again because I belonged to someone else. Or rather: because someone else belonged to me, and it was not him. But that was not right, either. What I could not tell him was something I was only just beginning to understand myself: that I could not see him again because Jerusalem belonged to Naftali, and no one else. That is exactly how it was. One day I received a package in the mail. It was from Naftali. Inside was a large bundle of papers, and on top a Post-it that read: "Good luck with the final exam. It’s not easy." I carried the papers to my bedroom and leafed through them. They were organized chronologically, and with roman numerals: I: Anti-Jewish Legislation, 1933-1935; II: The SS; III: The Einsatzgruppen; IV: The Death Camps. Etc. Naftali had taken Yehuda Bauer’s class a few semesters before me, and his notes were far more copious. In vain I searched the margins for doodles; my eyes raced across the pages for clues of any kind–underlined words, italics, a place on the page where the pen ran out of ink. I found nothing, only death and destruction. The Jews of Germany, Austria, Poland; the Jews of France, Belgium, Luxembourg; the Jews of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia. Naftali’s handwriting was beautiful; his aleph’s looked like cats arching their backs. I called him a week later, when I was through. "Shalom, Naftali?" I had not heard myself say his name in close to a month. "It’s Dina. I got your package. Todah rabah. It’s very comprehensive." "I hope it’s all there," he said. "There was a lot of material to cover." As we spoke I hurriedly flipped through the pages, trying to keep the conversation going at whatever cost. "In the section about Poland I couldn’t find a heading for Lvov," I gambled, placing my finger between ‘Lodz’ and ‘Piotrkow.’ "I know that’s where your grandfather came from, and I wanted to learn more about it." A sound like the trill of a low horn emerged from Naftali’s throat. "Lvov was a city of 100,000 Jews, a city of great culture and creativity," he said. "My grandfather had a happy life there." "What year did he leave for Israel?" "Leave for Israel? His heart was always in Israel. Even as a young boy. He came from a proud family of Zionists." It had been close to a month now, and I did not know what else to say to Naftali. The hot winds of a hamsin were spreading across Jerusalem, stirring up trails of fine dust in every direction. I could smell the dust through the open window; it filled my mouth and forced it shut. I would have liked to think it had the same effect on Naftali, that were it not for the dust penetrating his nostrils he would have tried to embrace the necessity of human discourse and allow himself to emerge, if only gradually, from the hiding place he had taken refuge in for so long. We said good-bye and I packed up the box of notes and took them to Miriam. She was sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in, peeling apples for a fruit compote. An empty Augarten serving bowl with a pink rose painted at the bottom teetered at the edge of the table. When she saw the contents of the box, she stopped what she was doing. "This he sends you, instead of flowers?" Miriam said, wiping her hands on a dish towel. "Take it away, please. I have enough ghosts in my house already." I cradled the box in my arms. "I think it’s his way of communicating," I said unconvincingly. "I think we’re beginning to understand each other." Together we sat on the couch and looked at pictures. "This is Lili, in Frankfurt," Miriam pointed to her sister’s pigtails. Suddenly she snapped the album shut. "So what was the matter with Yair?" It was hard for me to make the switch from Lili’s pigtails to Yair, from violent death to snowflakes sailing over the sea. "Nothing was the matter with Yair," I said, shutting my eyes but still seeing Lili. "Maybe he was a little young for me." Miriam clasped her hands together, perhaps to stop them from slapping me. "Young? And you like that Jerusalem has made Naftali old?" I did, very much. "He’s what I came to this country to find," I said, shrugging. Taking the notes with me, I left Miriam’s house and headed for Naftali’s. The streets were full of people like me, carrying their burdens from one place to another, stopping once, but never more than that, to admire the bougainvillea cascading over the fences and stone ledges that accompanied them on their way. As I approached HaRav Berlin Street, I encountered myself in every passerby: in a man walking his dog, the long leather leash wound tightly around his hand like tefillin; in two women pushing babies in strollers; in a young girl weighed down by a school bag and tossing an empty Coke can into the street. All these people were me, and I was them; whichever route I took to Naftali’s, it was always through a terrain of total fragmentation. Outside a newspaper stand I put down the box to scan the day’s headlines and gather myself together. Before I could do either, a rough, hairy hand landed on my shoulder. "What’s new in the world?" I looked up and took shelter in the shade of Yair’s eyelashes. "Shalom, Yair," I said. "I–" "–Nevermind," said Yair, quick to forgive. He leaned over to pick up Naftali’s box. "Where are you going? I’ll walk with you." I tried to walk, but my arms would not cooperate. Instead of swinging at my side they kept reaching out for the box in Yair’s arms, the coffin that carried Naftali. "That’s okay, I can carry that," I said nonchalantly. "It’s not heavy." Shifting the box into the palm of one hand, Yair lifted it up and held it out to me like a flower. "B’vakasha," he said with a bow. "With pleasure." I thanked Yair and we walked a little further; then we said good-bye and I was alone again, standing outside the door to Naftali’s building, propped open by a small slab of Jerusalem stone. Inside, a row of six narrow mailboxes lined the wall, the first bearing the name, in small Hebrew letters, Dr. Naftali Simon. I climbed some steps and rang the doorbell. Naftali opened the door, and the words tumbled out of my mouth. "Since when are you a Ph.D.?" I asked, pointing in the direction of the mailboxes below. "Here, I brought your notes back. Todah rabah again, but I decided not to take the exam. The material is too much for me. It should be too much for anyone in this country. Wasn’t it too much for you?" He invited me in, but did not answer my questions. Instead he said, in that muted voice of his that reached its object like a pillow, "Shalom, Dina. You are looking more Israeli each day." An open suitcase sat on the living room floor filled with books and underwear. "I’m going on reserve duty tomorrow, please excuse the mess," Naftali said, offering me a hard wooden chair to sit on while he continued packing. "Professor Bauer will be sorry you are not taking the exam. He loses a lot of students at the end of the semester." Naftali pulled out a book from the side pocket and handed it to me. "This Philip Roth would like to see us return to Europe and save Israel from a second Holocaust. What do you think of that idea?" I was thrilled by the ‘us’ in Naftali’s sentence. "Philip Roth is quite a satirist," I said eagerly, handing the book back to him. "Have you ever been to Europe?" "I’ve been to Poland." "To Lvov?" "Lvov," said Naftali. Soon the suitcase would be packed, and it would be time for me to go. But I did not want to go. I wanted to stay. Naftali was in the kitchen now, opening and closing drawers in search of something he probably did not need. I followed him there and waited for him to turn around and face me. When he didn’t, I said to Naftali in English, "Do you think love flourishes when it is deferred?" Naftali turned around and faced me now but his love of languages only went so far. "S’licha?" he said, begging my pardon. In his hand he held a carrot peeler. "I’m just wondering why you went to Lvov," I said. "Poland without Jews is a ghost town, no?" Naftali tried to squeeze by me and return to his suitcase. "It’s worse than a ghost town," he said, looking pale and ghostly himself. "My grandfather doesn’t even have a grave." Now it was my turn not to understand. Again. "But your grandfather left Poland, didn’t he? Before?" "Not before, and not after," said Naftali. "Everything was waiting here for him–a country, an apartment, a mailbox with his name on it, his children who had been sent ahead; everything. And it’s still waiting for him–Dr. Naftali Simon–just as it was." He left me then and retreated into his bedroom to finish preparing for reserve duty. I wanted to be close to Naftali, as close as Naftali was to the grandfather he never knew but whose name he would always carry; so I sat down on the floor next to his suitcase. It was a Samsonite, all black but for a bright yellow ribbon he had tied to the handle to distinguish it from all the other black Samsonite suitcases traveling through the airports and train stations of the world. Slipping my ring finger through the loop of the ribbon, I turned it every which way, vowing not to stop until it shone like gold. Naftali emerged from the bedroom with his army uniform draped over his arm, half civilian, half soldier. "A Jew must always keep a packed suitcase under his bed, in the event that he has to leave in a hurry," he said, folding the uniform as though it was a pair of pajamas. Breaking my vow, I withdrew my finger from the ribbon and rubbed away the indentation. "But you’re never here," I said, stating a fact that summed up Naftali. "You’re always somewhere else." Naftali bent down and slipped his uniform into the suitcase, smiling as if I had just made a joke. "Nu, should we go for a walk?" He zipped up the suitcase and wheeled it to the door. On HaRav Berlin Street in Jerusalem the sun was setting, casting its dying light on the faces of Israelis heading home for the evening. Naftali led the way up the alley and I followed, leaving behind the flow of traffic to continue to flow without us. At the mouth of the alley I bent down to remove a pebble from my sandal, and when I stood up again he was so far ahead of me it was impossible to see just where he had gone. I had wanted to have one last conversation with Naftali before letting him go, one final exchange to make him see that where he came from, I came from too. There was a great distance between us now, but we were still separated only by an alley. It was all I could do not to turn around and wait for him on the other side. #
Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in Zeek, Atlantic Unbound, Tikkun, Midstream, Shenandoah, and Covenant. She is at work on her first novel, What Comes Around, set in Israel.
Photo courtesy of Gal Forenberg from his pbase gallery.