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The pale of settlement, p.10

The Pale of Settlement, page 10


The Pale of Settlement

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  In the flat on Amram Gaon Street, Susan sits at the kitchen table as Avraham chops cucumbers and tomatoes and onions for a salad. Fanta? he asks. It takes a minute before she understands that he’s talking about orange soda. No, no, she says, just water please. The knife thwaks against the cutting board. She admires the tiny cubes of vegetables he flicks into the bowl. All Israelis seemed to know how to chop at a prodigious rate of speed. Yellow-handled utensils hang from suction cups along the tiled wall above the sink—a sieve, a whisk, a slotted spoon. A woman’s touch. Susan only vaguely remembers Avraham’s wife, Eva, a small soft woman with a puff of white hair and the swish of a Hungarian accent. The clock on the wall appears to have stopped at 2:17. Perhaps that’s what happens, Susan thinks, when you get older: you get stuck in time. Her own closets are filled with artifacts from the past—her old violin in its battered case, a bracelet from an ex-boyfriend, her mother’s linen tablecloths. She never uses any of these things, but she can’t bear to get rid of them, either. She thinks of her grandmother’s gold watch, lost in Kathmandu, with a painful twinge. She remembers reading once about a man who put all of his possessions—furniture, CDS, socks, everything—up for auction on eBay. She could see how it would be a relief. Avraham sets out on the dining table the salad, bread, a plate of cheese, and two foil-topped containers of leben, and they move into the next room. The flat is less depressing than Susan had imagined, and not too hot even on this stifling day. The dislocated feeling she had at the bar the night before is gone. Behind Avraham, on the sideboard, she studies the array of photographs—Eitan’s children, Susan guesses, in Purim costumes and swaddling wraps and naked in the bath. She notices another photograph, too, tucked into the edge of the frame of a larger one: a black-and-white of three children posed in the old-fashioned way, a taller boy standing with one hand on the shoulder of a smaller boy, and beside them, propped on a chair, a baby with a bow tied around its hairless head. It comes to Susan that the boys must be her uncles, the baby her mother, Leah. She points, and Avraham says, Yes, it was taken not long after we came to Palestine. Susan stands to look closer and now she can see clearly in the boys’ youthful faces her uncles’ determined lips and intense round eyes. But the baby, her mother, she does not recognize. It is a baby as boneless and unblinking as any other who holds her in its gaze.


  Now Avraham has gone to lie down for his midday nap—he has brought the newspaper in with him but it rests folded across his chest, rustling with his breath. No air moves through the open trissim. It is hot, hot, hot. In the next room, he can hear the girl moving about—the rasp of a drawer, the screech of a chair—and he thinks how long it’s been since he’s heard the sounds of another person, a woman, in this house. Then he realizes that what he’s hearing is not the girl but the sound of a pickax striking stone and he is standing at the brink of a staircase cut deep into the limestone like the one they uncovered at Hazor, leading to a system of water tunnels underground. Yadin is there, a surgical mask strapped over his mouth against the choking dust—or is it a gas mask?—but then Avraham sees that it isn’t dust at all but ash from when the Israelites burned the Canaanite city to the ground in the late Bronze Age. And then Avraham feels himself falling, falling without weight or gravity, and when he comes to a stop he is curled like a dead infant inside a burial jug, tipped sideways underground. He reaches out and his fingertips touch an arrowhead, a bead, a sharp fragment of bone. Then he opens his eyes and once again he is on his bed, the newspaper open on his chest, fluttering softly above his heart.

  Revisionist History

  Okay listen, Avraham says to Udi, who in his imagination has settled himself on the chaise longue on Avraham’s terrace and is cracking his knuckles, one at a time, while the girl bangs around in the kitchen, tidying up. Listen: don’t you think we owe it to our children to go back and get the story straight? Don’t you think they deserve to know the truth? History schmistory, Udi answers. Just because they call it revisionist you think it has to be the truth? You think you can just go and dig up the truth like some potsherds or Roman coins? Udi’s fingers are thick as bratwurst, the nails bitten to the quick. Avraham looks down at his own hands and for a moment does not recognize the mottled skin lumpy with blue veins. But do you understand what happens, Avraham says, when memory fails? Avraham is thinking of the moment he first saw his wife, thirty-seven years ago, in the main reading room of the library at Givat Ram, in that light blue shirtdress with her hair tied back at the neck, even though she always told the story differently, insisting that they met at a party the week before. Even though she’s still alive, he can no longer exactly picture her face—her real face, the way it used to be. He tends to superimpose an image from a photograph instead. So is memory a thorn in the sole of your foot? Avraham says out loud. Or is it a lie? Udi laces his fingers together and bends them back. His forehead shines in the heat. Now perhaps you are beginning to understand, he says.

  The Impression of Words

  The box is still sitting on the table by the telephone. The telephone is black and next to it there is a pad of paper from Bank Hapoalim and three pencils chewed on the ends. On the pad Susan can make out the faint impression of words although the writing itself has been torn off and thrown away. Avraham has taken out a box of photographs, which have been accumulating for more than fifty years, and they are sifting through them, one by one. There are recent color prints mixed with snapshots from the sixties and deckle-edged black-and-whites from earlier than that. Some have dates and names noted on the back, others are of smiling people whose names Avraham cannot recall. They even find a few pictures of Susan and her brothers, which her mother must have sent. Look, Avraham says, handing Susan a snapshot of herself at three in a party dress and patent leather shoes, posing with her mother before a birthday cake. How young her mother seems! In her minidress with long dark hair she looks so young that Susan has to run the numbers twice in her head before accepting that she is nearly ten years older now than her mother was then. Avraham puts the box of photographs away and offers Susan a piece of chocolate. She holds the bittersweet chocolate in her mouth and looks again at the box, which sits waiting by the phone, like a reproach. Zalman left only a handwritten note sealed in an envelope in the top drawer of his desk. Scatter my ashes in Jerusalem. A dead man’s words. And what words will there be when the moment comes? No rabbi will chant a valediction, say a prayer. No rabbi will consecrate a heap of crematorium ash. No one will chant the mourner’s kaddish, which does not even mention death, but appeals instead for the sanctification of God’s name. Kadosh: He is holy, holy, holy, beyond anything that can be put in words.

  What the Leaving Was Like

  Among the things Avraham cannot remember

  is what the leaving was like—

  how the cases were packed with the good Pesach dishes,

  the eiderdown quilts, the Meissen figurine of a boy and his mother,

  framed photographs, a mantle clock, loose sheets

  of piano music, and all those other belongings

  that would prove quite useless here in this desert

  here in this promised land. He cannot imagine how

  the decision was made to leave everything and go,

  with two small children and another barely on the way;

  how they said good-bye to grandparents, cousins, neighbors, friends;

  how they walked out of the house and looked back

  that one last time, or maybe didn’t look back at all,

  thinking this leaving would only be a temporary thing.

  He cannot remember the journey by sea to Haifa,

  if they passed checkpoints or soldiers along the way,

  or if it was just like going on a summer vacation—

  a train ride, a boat trip, an adventure. It was no Eden

  they left behind, but still he feels himself an exile.

  He cannot remember a single word of Polish now

ept for a lullaby his mother used to sing—

  something about a street, a house, a beautiful girl

  who once was loved.

  What a Scant Residue

  What does Susan know about her uncle Zalman?

  That he was seventy when he died of a heart attack

  in his sleep in the Chicago apartment where he’d lived alone for twenty-two years—

  That he never went to synagogue and had only disdain for God—

  That he kept a subscription to the symphony, where each year he sat in the same

  center-left orchestra seat to ensure a view of the pianists’ hands—

  That he had a crooked eyetooth, hairy nostrils and ears,

  a fondness for hummus and olives and sweet mint tea—

  That he fought and was wounded in the War of Independence

  (and so she pictures him then as Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus,

  romantic and bold, in khaki with a two-day growth of stubble rough on his strong chin)—

  That he brought her the kind of presents a childless uncle chooses for a little girl:

  a Chinese necklace in the shape of a fish, a denim purse appliquéd with a heart—

  And she thinks what a scant residue a life leaves—

  a fistful of facts both random and worn that hardly add up to an entire man

  the way eyes, a nose, ears, and teeth do not add up to a face.


  In the morning, while the girl sleeps, Avraham stands in the kitchen, watching the pigeons pecking in the gritty light. Already it is hot. He collects a place mat, a cup, a plate, and silverware, lays them out on the dining table for the girl when she wakes up, the way Eva used to do when Eitan came home from the army or university. The box sits on the table by the phone. How different, he wonders, are its contents from the stuff he’s sifted through so many times in excavating the destruction layer of a tell, the debris of ancient fire. Often you found the best things there, buried in the ash, the most telling clues: abandoned vessels, cult objects, tablets, seals, bits of carbonized wood and bone. He loved the way it all came together on a dig, the way you had to turn and twist the pieces in your head until they fit. He used to laugh at the volunteers who’d arrive at the site filled with visions of ancient splendor and grow so quickly disappointed when they saw only piles of dirt and rubble, half-dug holes. But where’s the city? they’d complain. Look, he’d point out, here’s a foundation stone, here’s a cistern, here’s a retaining wall. But they saw nothing but destruction, a heap of broken stone. Tȩsknota: the Polish word for “nostalgia” comes to him suddenly, a word he didn’t even know he knew, with overtones of sadness and longing the Hebrew did not have. But whatever Avraham might be nostalgic for remains as deeply buried as the rest of his mother tongue he has forgotten or repressed. He considers nostalgia an unnecessary indulgence, like too much chocolate or cigarettes. He pushes his glasses up his nose. Perhaps Zalman was the smart one, to leave it all behind. Perhaps he’d had no regrets, after all.

  Life Was Beautiful There

  Every Saturday, Zalman went down to the corner to the Nablus Café,

  where the owner Nabil served him hummus and olives and cups of nana tea

  and sometimes sat with him and smoked a cigarette and talked about

  whether business was good, when the weather would break, whether Sharon or Arafat

  was the greater fool. Nabil had a brushy moustache like Stalin’s and tired, wrinkled eyes.

  His eighty-six-year-old mother sat in the back and supervised the cook.

  Zalman felt at home there, among the smells of cardamom and roasted lamb,

  the drone of Arabic music, the photographs of old Beirut that lined the walls.

  He was born in a village in the hills west of Jerusalem, Nabil told Zalman once,

  a village with stone houses and hardscrabble fields and groves of olive trees,

  a village that no longer existed. His old mother still had the deed to the land,

  a slip stamped and lined like a grocery receipt, given to her grandfather in 1931,

  which she kept in an embroidered purse in her night table drawer. She had the key

  to her grandfather’s house, an iron skeleton key the size of a hand,

  which hung from a chain looped like a noose around the post of her bed.

  Nabil cracked the word key between his teeth like a sunflower seed, blowing

  two streams of smoke out his nose. Life was beautiful there, he told Zalman,

  before ’48, before An Naqba—your War of Independence, our Catastrophe.

  Then they shook hands and clapped each other on the back like two old friends

  and joked that they were a two-man delegation of peace, shaking their heads

  over how they’d both come to be in a storefront café in Chicago, Illinois.

  Susan Imagines

  And now he’s serving her breakfast, boiling an egg, pouring coffee, setting out half a grapefruit with a serrated spoon, and she sits with her washed hair dripping onto her shoulders, feeling light and childlike as if he were her mother trying to get her to eat a good breakfast before going off to school. Just like the American Colony Hotel, yes? he jokes. Really, please don’t go to all this trouble, she says, and he says, Nonsense, you must eat. And so she eats, the toast and jam, the soft-boiled egg, the grapefruit, the coffee, the juice. He comes and sits opposite her, folds back the morning newspaper, adjusts his bifocals on his nose. The fingerprints on the lenses glint in the sunlight, obscuring his eyes. You need to clean your glasses, she says, and he frowns and says, For this dirty news dirty glasses are alright. Then he takes them off and wipes them on his shirt. Now she sees him as he would appear in a photograph she might take, the round lines of his skull and his magnified eyes and his large, expressive hands. How sad, she thinks, to be so alone, but it occurs to her that he could well be thinking the same thing about her, wondering what hidden flaw or twist of fate has kept her unattached as well. And for a moment, she tries to imagine what it would be like simply to stay here, right here in this flat on Amram Gaon Street in Givat Shaul. She could stay in Eitan’s old room, sleep in Eitan’s old bed. Every night she would sleep the same amnesic sleep she slept last night. Avraham would cook and she would clean the flat and do the wash. In the evenings, they’d sit on the terrace and listen to the sounds of the night. It would be so easy, really, not to go back. She watches Avraham as he reads the paper, and she shakes off the fantasy. Probably he is perfectly happy living here the way he is. Probably she would miss her own life after a short while. Still, she wishes she were the kind of person who could change her life just like that.

  On the Front Page

  On the front page, another bus bombing.

  More than fifty wounded, eighteen dead,

  including the bus driver and his child.

  The photos show the roof peeled back like skin,

  a mangled exoskeleton of steel,

  a medic running beside a stretcher,

  a flag of plasma hoisted in his hand.

  Volunteers with beards and garbage bags

  search for shreds of flesh or shards of bone.

  Even those who escape dismemberment

  will suffer from an endless ringing in their ears.

  In Hebron, the photographs show fireworks

  and throngs of people rejoicing,

  dancing in the streets around a burning car.

  The face of the twenty-year-old martyr

  bobs on placards above the crowd.

  In all this noise you cannot hear

  the sound of tears,

  only a requiem of rage.

  Avraham Decides

  It is not until they are already in the car and on their way that Avraham decides this is the place. He pulls the car over at a bend in the hillside road and for a moment they sit, looking out. There is Har Nof, he tells the girl, Panorama Hill, and it is beautiful, the view from here of the Jerusalem forest on this yellow afternoon: ther
e, across the crease of the wadi, Mount Herzl, terraced with military graves, and a bit further on, Har Hazikaron and Yad Vashem. To every hilltop in Jerusalem a monument to the dead. There the concrete apartment blocks of Givat Shaul shine white in the sun, although from here he cannot make out which one is his. Not far away is the compound at Deir Yassin—stone buildings, the barbed wire fence, the heaps of concrete rubble and stone. What’s that, over there? the girl asks, pointing, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. A psychiatric clinic, Avraham responds. A mental hospital. There is much this girl does not know. Although, in fairness, he thinks, many Israelis also probably don’t remember what happened there, and he wonders whether it is better to have forgotten or, like the Palestinians, to be unable to forget. He opens the car door, steps out into the heat. The girl joins him, and for a moment they stand, looking out at the knobby hills, the eggshell sky. Behind them, the hot engine clicks. The ground is soft with pine needles and chalky yellow-white stones. Yes, here, he says. He knows he should bury the box but he is afraid someone will see them if he takes the time to dig. The girl hands him the box and he holds it to his chest as he slits the seal with his car key. The box is surprisingly heavy. Two or three kilos of pulverized tissue and bone. CREMATED HUMAN REMAINS, the label says. A riddle. What remains? To this riddle, he knows the answer: only the sky and wind and earth and stones. Shouldn’t we say something? Susan asks. Avraham looks at the girl, her amber eyes, the uncanny tilt of her head. And then, suddenly, rising all around them, there comes a rustling and a rush like beating wings. The boughs of the pine trees tremble and sway. The wind. It rises at Avraham’s back like the exhalation of a long-held breath. The wind has shifted to the north; now the heat will break. Shouldn’t we say something? the girl repeats. No, he says. He looks around again to make sure no one is there to see. Then he shakes the box and the dust and ash fly up into the sky.

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