A note from the editor S. Y. Agnon wrote: “Every book one opens, one finds in it things not found before.” Beginning this month, Zeek will be translating some of the best Hebrew fiction you’ve never seen before, published in … Read More
A note from the editor S. Y. Agnon wrote: “Every book one opens, one finds in it things not found before.” Beginning this month, Zeek will be translating some of the best Hebrew fiction you’ve never seen before, published in English in our pages for the first time anywhere. This new series couldn’t come at a better time: Hebrew literature has undergone profound changes and reinventions during the last two decades. The voices of women, recent immigrants, postmodern experimentalists, Arab Israelis, and mizrahi writers have all revitalized Israeli literature in both form and theme.
All too often, however, English speakers are unaware of Israel’s vibrant and varied literary scene. With this month’s launch of our Hebrew literature in translation feature, we hope to call your attention to this rich body of work that deals with matters of faith, identity, political struggle, and the burdens of history. Writers in Israel have a long tradition of being viewed as prophets, and Zeek believes that the fiction we publish will comfort, rebuke, and inspire readers while bearing witness to national dreams and failures.
Jessica Cohen had this to say about her work with Moshe Ron’s Protection: “In addition to the questions of how to convey the humor, local flavor, and colloquialisms of Israeli culture in the language of a very different culture, I faced an unusual challenge: the author of the story is not only fluent in English, but is himself a noted literary translator. While this meant that he would be able to see through any tricks of the trade, it also produced a fruitful collaboration and led to an end result that is true to the voice and spirit of the original work, if not always to each individual turn of phrase.”
Zeek’s Hebrew translations are made possible with a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to arovner[at]zeek.net.
Adam Rovner, Hebrew Translations Editor
When I came in with my duffle bag and found his note Scotch-taped to the bathroom mirror, I really didn’t know what to do. I sat down in the living room opposite the TV’s glassy eye and wrung my hands, literally. And then Shimrit called. That’s how she ended up being the one I dumped this whole thing on. It may not have been the longest phone call we’ve ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the shortest one either. I couldn’t help but begin from the end, the bitter end, and then I went back to the beginning and tried to reconstruct the whole chain of events for her. Usually it’s me listening to her long, drawn-out descriptions of various crises, like with that violent cop she was dating for a while, or that miserable poseur she was even married to for six months or so.
It all started when I needed a mattress for those treatments I learned how to do in that course I took, a special mattress you couldn’t find in an ordinary store. After asking around, I found out there was a place in the south of town, somewhere in the lower end of Nahalat Binyamin, where they made this kind of stuff to order. South Tel Aviv is not exactly my stomping ground, so I asked Shaike – I was very sweet about it, I really don’t think I was bugging him – if he would go with me. And to my surprise on that very Friday, a day he doesn’t go to any of his jobs but is usually busy with all sorts of meetings, we did go.
We took a cab down to avoid traffic jams and parking hassles. He went into Goldbloom & Sons with me, waited patiently while I asked my questions at the counter, even climbed up a steep staircase with me to the gallery where I explained to the guy exactly what I needed. A price was settled, something like 270 shekels plus tax, and they promised the mattress would be ready in a week.
We were pretty pleased with how well the transaction had gone – I mean, I think it wasn’t just me who was pleased. We had some time left, so we took advantage of it to wander around Florentine and the old commercial center, a fascinating part of town. There are few things I like more than wandering around somewhere with Shaike, listening to all his philosophizing and his memories of old Tel Aviv. It was a bright sunny day, truly lovely. Shaike was wearing that straw hat we’d gotten for him in Greece, which I make him wear on days like that to protect his freckled complexion, and he looked elegant and hunky in that careless way of his. He showed me the synagogue his grandfather had helped build, where the old guy went on to spend most of his time during the last few decades of his life. We bought all sorts of spices and beans and dried fruit from interesting shops. We went into a delicatessen on Levinksy and came out loaded with bags. Shaike was in a cheerful mood and joked around with the clerk, teasing him about Maccabi’s recent loss to Hapoel, while unconsciously mimicking the man’s Bulgarian accent a bit. We topped it all off with a good, inexpensive lunch at a restaurant on Aliyah Street. The following week he had some kind of deadline and I couldn’t possibly drag him there again. So he stayed home working at his computer and I hailed a cab on Ibn Gabirol Street and headed south. The cabbie wouldn’t turn the meter on, and you know how that drives me up a wall. “It won’t cost you any more than you want to pay,” he tells me. “And if I don’t want to pay anything?” I was already losing it. “Then don’t pay.”
As soon as he stopped for me, I thought he looked a bit scary. I was sure he was an Arab, kind of dark, with overgrown hair and a few days’ worth of very black stubble on his face. I needed to hear him speak normal Hebrew, to make sure he was an Israeli cabdriver. After our little argument he ended up turning the meter on, and I explained that I had to pick up this mattress from some store and asked if he’d mind waiting a couple minutes with the meter running while I was gone.
So I go into Goldbloom’s and show them the receipt and they send me to this warehouse at the other end of their lot. I went out to tell the driver I was just going next door, so he wouldn’t think I’d skipped out on him without paying. I even pulled out a twenty and almost forced it on him.
At the warehouse, I was in for a shock: instead of making the cut and the seam so you could fold the mattress widthwise, those morons had done it lengthwise. This thing they made was totally useless for my purpose, or for any other I could imagine. And on top of everything else, instead of blue, like I’d asked for, they’d made it pink, my least favorite color. Of course I refused to take the stupid mattress, which wasn’t what I’d ordered. An argument started, first with the warehouse guy, then with the manager, who was the one who had personally taken down my order the week before. They kicked up a big fuss, making it out like it was my fault, claiming I didn’t even know what I’d ordered. I told them I had nothing more to say to them; I left the mattress and walked out.
Bottom line, I get into the cab shamefaced—I think the expression is just right in this particular case. I shut the door, ask the driver to take me back home, and he starts driving. About thirty seconds later he looks in the rear-view mirror and asks me where the mattress is.
I don’t really feel like talking, but I tell him anyway. I explain how they made the opposite of what I’d ordered. But me, I’m so crazy, I paid them everything in advance, the whole sum. So now there’s nothing I can do, I’m thick, so goddamn thick. I believe I repeated those words several times over.
By now we’re already at Hamoshavot Square.
The guy starts asking me why I left without my mattress. I don’t really feel like sharing my misery with him, but he insists, keeps asking over and over. I said I was sick of the whole world, had no patience for all this crap, nothing ever worked out the way it should.
“But you gave them money, so where’s your mattress? Why’d you leave it there?”
I went over the whole thing again: I paid everything in advance. The mattress they made, I don’t need. And now I have no leverage whatsoever.
“What do you mean? You paid – you should get what you bought. You deserve what you paid for. Otherwise, what the hell’s going on here?”
And then I said, “I guess I don’t make much of an impression on anyone.” I was quiet for a few seconds. “Anyway, two-hundred shekels one way or the other won’t kill us.”
But this cabbie, you see, Shimrit, he just wouldn’t give up for some reason. “You wanna go back and get that mattress?” He kept asking again and again, rephrasing it several different ways.
By now we’re back on Ibn Gabirol, at the corner of our street. I said he could let me off right there.
The guy stops, and he still won’t let it go. “You want me to call them?”
“What’s the point? What can you say?”
“You leave that to me. Got your receipt?”
What did I have to lose? After staring at him blankly for another few seconds, I handed him the receipt.
So what can I tell you, the guy whips out his cell phone and calls.
“Hello? You Goldenbaum?” On the other end of the line they must have corrected him about the name. And let me tell you, he speaks with this really heavy mizrahi accent you wouldn’t believe, with all those guttural sounds, making no attempt whatsoever to take on a normal Israeli accent, you know? “Listen, Goldenbaum,” he goes on, “I’m speaking for the lady who just left your store and didn’t get her mattress.”
They must have said something like why did she leave without her mattress, it’s not right, why did she just take off like that.
So he tells them, “Sure she took off, she ordered one thing and you guys gave her something different. You see the customer’s a girl, so you tell her it’s her fault.”
And then they get into a pointless argument along the lines of she-said, you-said.
But the cabbie doesn’t let that go on for too long. He cuts off the guy at Goldbloom’s, or maybe it was Mr. Goldbloom himself, and says, with perfect composure, “She told you it’s gotta have a fold across the middle, not down the length,” and so on and so forth.
On the other end they must want to know who he is.
The guy doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m her boyfriend,” he says. “And now you are going to make that mattress for her like she asked. And in blue, none of this pink crap.”
A flood of rapid words from the other end. He holds his little mauve cell phone a foot away from his ear. After a calculated pause he repeats, “You guys messed up, you screwed it up. She just wants the mattress she needs. Now you make that mattress for her like she asked. Unless you want trouble with me.” All this is very softly spoken.
Another flood of words. He holds the phone away again.
“You heard me, Goldenbaum? Okay.”
And then he flips the phone shut, clips it back in place and turns to me. “Okay, you go there Tuesday, you give them thirty shekels, you get the mattress you ordered.”
To tell you I was stunned? I don’t think I even knew what the hell was going on. Anyway I recovered enough to thank him profusely. I gave him a nice tip on top of the metered fare. But I forgot to get his name and number, and I couldn’t even call him afterwards and tell him I actually did get the mattress and it all worked out fine.
Shimrit didn’t seem to really get the point. “Wait a minute, he didn’t try and hit on you, this character, or like take your phone number?” But that wasn’t it at all.
Because what it was became clear only in hindsight. A few weeks later I managed to pull Shaike away from his work one evening and drag him to the movies. I can’t remember the name of the picture for some reason. Anyway, it’s the story of this girl who’s got a boyfriend she’s living with and everything seems fine, and then one day on her way to work, next to this “walk” button at a pedestrian crossing, she runs into some kind of mysterious guy. They instantly get the hots for each other, and within two or three minutes on screen they’re having wild sex in some fancy, old Victorian mansion she followed him to. Pretty soon she tells her boyfriend that’s it, she’s giving him the heave-ho, and she goes off and marries Mr. Mysterious, who in the meantime turns out to be a world-famous mountaineer who not too long ago suffered some awful trauma when half his crew, his then-girlfriend included, perished in a horrendous, fatal avalanche.
The acting in this flick is pathetic, theatrical and unconvincing, the casting totally stereotypical, the director’s work crude, and the story – one big manipulation. If you were thinking of going, don’t waste your time. I mean it. But it’s not over yet. The only person at their wedding is the priest, and it’s held in some godforsaken rural church on the aristocratic groom’s family estate, and the honeymoon he planned for her is actually more like boot camp, where he puts her through a series of pretty dangerous situations in which she is utterly dependent on him, like running through a snowy forest at night, pathetically trying to keep up with him after he purposely sprints ahead. Scary stuff, but she doesn’t lose her trust, or doesn’t have much of a choice. Eventually she arrives at this lodge and is rewarded with even wilder sex than before. But later, when the two of them have been married for a while, she starts getting anonymous letters warning her about the guy, hinting that he was to blame for the climbing accident and responsible for the deaths of various other former girlfriends, and now she realizes she doesn’t really know a damn thing about him.
At this point Shaike can’t restrain himself anymore. He mutters, elbowing me to get my attention for a brief, whispered lecture about the theory he’s formulated. “It’s Barbe Bleue,” he says, “Blue Beard. A postmodern version of the fairytale. I wonder if it will turn out like Angela Carter’s feminist take, with the mother riding to the rescue in the nick of time, instead of the brothers, as in Charles Perrault’s old version.”
None of this was very interesting to me, and I whispered back my own critique of this phony, manipulative, so-called work of art. He mumbled another mini-lecture in my ear, involving several uses of the words genre and realism and you don’t understand.
He snorted derisively when he recalled the blurb in the newspaper describing the film as a psychological drama. “See how he’s always slightly unshaven?” he pointed out. “Those blue-black jowls, that’s the origin of the term ‘bluebeard.’” Meanwhile the plot has moved forward, the woman is freaked out so gets the police involved. Only in the end, it turns out that the variation here is that the murders were committed by the guy’s psycho sister, who is secretly and incestuously in love with him, so this Bluebeard is no Bluebeard at all, despite having a kind of blue beard. And as punishment for not having trusted him completely – him and his sick, kinky power games – he leaves her high and dry. Next time she’ll know better.
When we come out of the mall to a deserted Dizengoff Street, it’s past midnight, and we sit at a sidewalk café by the square, sawing at a Crêpe Suzette with plastic knives. Shaike is still at it, holding forth about folklore in postmodern art, and at some point I say, “You know, sometimes I want to be protected. It gives me a good feeling to know someone’s taking responsibility, watching out.” And I remind him of the story with the cab driver, a story I’d already told Shaike that Friday after coming home, and which we both found highly amusing at the time. After that, nothing special happened. We went home, everything same as usual. But in life, of course, nothing’s ever usual, not even the things that seem most usual. Now I remember that the CD he put on before going to bed was Frank Sinatra, and the song he was looking for was Someone to Watch Over Me. “For you,” he said, with his usual irony, before he turned over and started touching me. And I him.
So today I come back from this five-day retreat up in the Galilee and I find his note taped to the mirror above the sink. Since he’s apparently not a good enough “protector,” he’s leaving. Rent’s paid through the end of the year. The stuff he needs he’s already taken. I can do whatever I want with the rest, including the videos and records. There’s no point in trying to get in touch, because for the foreseeable future he’ll be far away.
What a jerk. What? Doesn’t he know how much he means to me? I don’t need to tell you, of all people. Is there even one other man in the world I could last four whole years with? If not for him, I would never have graduated. Has anyone ever taken care of me the way he did? And that time I disappeared on him for a week – and you are one of only two people in the world who know what that was about – he took me back and never insisted much on any explanations. Didn’t want to humiliate me. Come to think of it, I even love his patronizing, opinionated lectures. I know he loves me, that jerk. What a jerk. I have proof, lots of proof. All these emotions, all these memories of good times, bedroom scenes, that sort of thing, start coming to me. Suddenly I’m flooded with yearning, overcome with sorrow. Now I have to try very hard not to start sobbing miserably to Shimrit over the phone. That’s definitely the last thing I want to be doing, so I move quickly to hang up.
But then I notice the light flashing on the answering machine. It’s a message from his travel agent, from yesterday, saying his ticket is ready and he’d better – and here the woman actually giggles – come by and pick it up on his way to the airport. I get a hold of her on the phone and manage to extract from her where he’s gone off to. And it really is far away.