Arts & Culture

Israeli Fiction: “In Fact the Heat is Maddening, 1929”

The World A Moment Later imagines a shadowy micronation developing in parallel to the state of Israel. This entity, the Abramowitz Estate, attracts talented misfits, half-crazed outcasts, and others disgruntled and marginalized by the Zionist establishment. Whether pioneer or party … Read More

By / October 6, 2008

The World A Moment Later imagines a shadowy micronation developing in parallel to the state of Israel. This entity, the Abramowitz Estate, attracts talented misfits, half-crazed outcasts, and others disgruntled and marginalized by the Zionist establishment. Whether pioneer or party official, ideologue or demagogue, the characters who inhabit Gutfreund’s secret history reveal a tragi-comic take on Zionism. In this excerpt, a real estate speculator teaches the young Abramowitz a lesson about the madness that territory can inspire. — Adam Rovner, translations editor

When I was a young man like you, I ran away from my father’s house to join the pioneers. In the Galilee mountains, land of the ancient prophets, we settled on a hilltop. What can I say, the terrain was rocky, there was no majesty and no glory. Arabs all around, their villages built around wells, while all we had was a vehicle that crawled down the hill once a week to bring back contaminated water. We had money neither for shoes nor for agricultural tools. On the hilltop we sat and suffered, clinging on day by day in the sun, the desolation, calling ourselves the keepers of the land, while the cattle grew thin in the barns and pens. From morning to evening we bore no fruits, but we were pioneers, having stood in the sun for another day without dying.

        And so we sat, pioneers with hearts of stone. Our bodies were empty, our souls were empty, and on we went for another day and another, malaria, desperation. But one day–reinforcement. A young boy arrived. He had come to Palestine to be a pioneer. His appearance? Gaunt, pale-faced, his cheeks sinking into his mouth seeking shelter. But all eyes were drawn to his hands, dove-white hands of muslin with long, pale, polished fingers, each nail carefully shaped. We welcomed him politely and asked his name and where he was from. The young man grew startled and tried to evade our questions as though we were probing at the depths of his soul, invading, uncovering secrets. He barely managed to give his name, and it was Yasha. The name of his village he did not disclose, it was too much to bear.

        We let him be. The next day we sent him out with a hoe, and by five in the morning he had fainted away. We carried him inside to cool his body and decide what was to be done with him. He awoke, shouting like a slaughtered calf, “I will not go back! I will not go back!” Recovered, he was sent to the pen to help clean and learn how to milk. By evening he collapsed in the middle of the pen, bleeding, and awoke shouting only when he believed we were discussing sending him to a sanatorium. He was miserable. An Abel who sees all the world as Cain come to kill him.

        A week later, a postal vehicle ambled up the path with a telegram. Imagine to yourself–a telegram arriving at our little place! It transpired that young Yasha was no mere dreamer, but a prodigious musician, a gifted pianist, his fingers worth their weight in gold. How could we have known, embedded as we were in a wilderness, a land of hot coals in the summer and swamps in the winter? How could we have recognized his name as being famous in all the capitals of Europe? We learned that the boy, being a true Zionist, had slipped away from his agents, teachers and coaches. Slipped away from his mother, a noblewoman from an affluent Zionist family, and she was sending us this telegram to the desert sun. Send the boy back! she demanded, as if we had taken him hostage, as if we were Ishmaelites and he Joseph.

        The telegram informed us that her delegate would be coming to collect her son on the sixth of April at precisely nine o’clock, at which time we must bring him to the fence for delivery. And indeed, on the sixth of April a vehicle made its way up the hill again, conveying Attorney Felix Shokef from Haifa. Scanning the wasteland of our settlement, he enquired whether he had reached the right place, and asked to see the boy.

        Yasha does not flee. He goes out to the attorney and faces him. Attorney Shokef wipes his brow with a handkerchief, looks at the boy and forms his impression. Then he looks this way and that at our garden of Eden, and stares into our faces. “Who is the leader here?” he asks, and we begin to pour forth a torrent of explanations on this bourgeois man, this urbanite–for we are a group, we are equals, we have no need for leaders. But Attorney Shokef silences us with his hand and says dryly, “I shall speak with one of you. Then the rest shall listen to the terms governing the grants you will receive in return for attending to Yasha for so long as he lives here.”

        He looks at us scornfully while the dizzying concept of grants dries up the refusal on the tips of our tongues. And I, who have recently been appointed treasurer, and who often look down from our hilltop to the valleys and see empty wallets, I announce: We shall talk! The group makes way and Attorney Shokef looks at me and makes his proposal.

        And what did he propose? He informed me that the whole pioneering business was a passing fad for Yasha. His future was in Europe in front of a devoted audience. But since this was Yasha’s desire, and his nerves were known to be fragile, and he himself had no intention of forcibly removing the boy, he would reach an agreement with us. Every week Yasha would write a letter to his mother. This was the first term. Every two weeks Attorney Shokef himself would come to examine Yasha’s welfare. If the mother was pleased with his letters, and if Attorney Shokef was satisfied with Yasha’s general condition, the mother would bestow a grant upon the group, as well as a personal grant to me, the leader. If Sasha were not well kept he would be removed immediately and the grants would cease. If his spirits were good–the grants would increase. Attorney Shokef then began to list numbers, advance fees and premiums. I was seized by a sweet sense of horror. How could we refuse? Attorney Shokef suddenly leaned in close to me, dwarfish and flushed with perspiration, his glare penetrating my depths, and said, “Keep his fingers from all harm!”

        A few days later a large package arrived from Europe. Inside, for Yasha, were a beautiful set of work gloves, a toy-sized hoe, a couple of rakes, a colorful funnel and several hats. There were also dishes, a fork and knife, and napkins. But we were busy with our own gifts–excellent boots, work shirts and dress shirts, kettles and pots and pans, pruning shears and forceps, a tool for picking dates and baskets for gathering fruit and various other agricultural devices for crops we did not even grow. How could we possibly have orchards? How could we have vineyards? We had barely a bunch of goats and two cows, and a donkey who produced nothing but pitiful neighs, as if he too had left behind a father, mother and sister in Mogilev.

        This was the beginning of an enjoyable era for us. All our efforts, both of body and soul, were concentrated on Yasha. He was our main crop. We had to protect his body from any hazard, and his fingers–twofold. We had to preserve his good spirits and allow him to amuse and befriend the women.

        Each one of us oversaw Yasha’s letters. Every week, with astonishing precision, a package arrived with a letter from the mother that overflowed with happiness and sorrow. The lovelier Yasha’s writing, the greater the package. We were soon able to build a new pen and a barn, restore the decaying coop, enquire about additional lands, and purchase new clothes and shoes. But there was a fly in the ointment–Yasha. He had complicated issues with his mother, hard to understand. On a crate in the communal room he would sit begrudgingly with a sheet of paper before him, and we would all stand around him, waiting. But Yasha? His letters were dejected. Barely letters at all. We encouraged, badgered, warmly patted his back, brought him a pitcher of water, some dried figs, an apple. Allowed him to take a short walk for inspiration. Put our arms around his shoulders again. But Yasha let out a trickle of words here, a trickle there. Not enough. We urged him, explaining that his mother’s packages were extremely helpful to the enterprise. We wanted her to send more so that our yields would grow, but Yasha would say, I don’t want to… I cannot… leave me be… it is impossible….

         Once a fortnight, like the great eagle, Attorney Shokef came to visit. He placed the money in the cash box, explained how the sum was calculated, with premiums and supplements and fines and subtractions and management fees and so on and so forth. He examined Yasha, talked with him, and asked again, “Won’t you go back to Mother?”

        This arrangement persisted for four months. The group was blossoming, there was plenty of money, and every corner of our home was handsome. Only Yasha was wilting. His face grew bronzed, but in the crack of his eyes lay a plea–Release me from myself, from my bonds. What ill did the boy’s soul suffer? I will never know.

        And then one day we were in a playful mood and took a majority decision that was senseless–to use the gift money to hire a bus and go off for a good time in the big city. Singing loudly, we set off on our way, knowing that the next day Attorney Shokef would arrive and our budget would be replenished. After all, a little enjoyment does no harm to anyone. We reached the city and had a wonderful time. A spirit of comradeship. Yasha was with us too, reticent and sullen, but when a hand patted his shoulder a smile would come to his lips. As we looked through a window into an inviting café, we saw a piano on a raised platform inside. The idea came quickly: Yasha must play. He refused at first, but we could not let it go. He lived with us, a member of our group, a supporting pillar–how could we never know the pleasure of his music?

        We sit him at the piano and he stammers, “The piano…it’s not tuned.” The café proprietor is called: It certainly is tuned, he retorts, Batsheva Fried plays her beautiful music here every Tuesday. Finally Yasha places his fingers on the keys. Silence surrounds us. His music is familiar, a simple melody, well-known, easily played on a harmonica. But what can I say…you would not understand. It is his fingers that we watch. Like ten white ploughs they drive on, injuring–injuring the soul. At a certain moment all you desire is to bury your face in your hands and weep. Weep over the ways of the cruel world. Your distress has no remedy, and there can be no peace. You wish to weep because the beauty of the world lives beyond the mountains, and beyond the mountains is your old father’s house, and there sits your mother at the window, longing to see you, her son. Perhaps you will understand….

        That evening Yasha went home with us, but he sat alone. The bus carried us along in utter silence. Where was the day of rejoicing, the day of foolish happiness? Yasha’s music had taken its toll on us and shown us how very, very low our lives were. The bus climbed up the hill and we sank lower, and did not turn to Yasha.

        The next morning was the day of Attorney Shokef’s visit. Yasha lay like a corpse, sickly, seemingly claimed by malaria. He raised his head and asked, When is Attorney Shokef coming? We responded in a merciful chorus, “At nine.” We wanted to bathe Yasha, refresh him, stuff him with medicine and food, give him hot tea. But Yasha refused and took to his bed. At ten minutes before nine the car appeared and we called for Yasha, but the poor boy’s body was already swaying lifelessly from a rope, with no hope of resuscitation.

        What did we do? We ran. We simply ran. Each in a different direction. We left everything behind in the flourishing settlement. One man loaded a goat on his shoulders and took off downhill, another grabbed a till and a woman and left on horseback. Catch as catch can. I fled on foot. For three hours I walked, I almost died by the time I reached a side road. The whole way I carried with me the communal funds in a heavy box. I waited for another twenty hours, almost a whole day and night, until a vehicle from Kibbutz Kotshim came by and picked me up. And here I am before you today, two decades later, a land dealer. All my initial capital was from that cash-box. Twenty years have gone by, and the conscience? Shall we enquire as to its state? Well, life has turned out this way and not another.

        Listen, I will tell you something. When I was a child I had a beloved uncle who brought gifts every time he visited. One day he gave me a little compass and taught me how to find the north. I took the compass with me everywhere I went, and the first thing I did was find out where the north was. In every place the needle showed the north. At school, in the playground, in my room, in Father’s store. On his next visit, my uncle asked me a riddle: If you stand right at the north pole, where will the needle point?

        His question stumped me, and he rejected every answer I could think of. Then he told me: There, in the north pole, the needle will go mad. It will point up, down, sideways, every which way. The compass is good for showing the north in every place on Earth except for the north itself.

        That is what my uncle said. And the moral?

        How easy was Zionism when all it consisted of was longings for Zion. In all the corners of the Diaspora, in Poland and Russia and Yemen and Morocco, the needle pointed the way, showed us what must be done. But from the moment we came here, to Zion, the needle went mad.