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The pale of settlement, p.13

The Pale of Settlement, page 13


The Pale of Settlement

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  He sat up and switched on the lamp again, picked up the diary. The evidence was what mattered. What were the facts? She met him on the bus. He walked by as she was sitting in a coffeehouse downtown. She did not actually say he was an officer. Or a Jew. Avraham had just... presumed. His curly black hair... his smooth dark skin. There were other possibilities as well.

  Y stood for Yusuf, too.

  It was impossible, but still. Avraham found himself thinking back to the Israeli Arab students he’d had over the years—their politeness, their rather old-fashioned courtly ways, so different from the brash Israeli style. It was impossible, but now that the thought had entered his head, Avraham couldn’t get it out again. He could hear the throaty ayins, the rolling rs, as he lifted her off the ground, his eyes locked on hers.

  Is it really you?

  Of all people. Shit.

  By 1959, Leah was in New York. She left the apartment blocks of Sanhedria, the crumbling stone walls and dusty lots littered with curls of rusted wire and weeds, for the steel and glass of Manhattan, the unbounded energy of the States. She stood on the tarmac at Idlewild and felt her lungs expand. She wasn’t of the generation who had longed from exile for a mythic land of olive trees and Bedouins roaming with their flocks, for the desert wind, the sound of camel bells. She hadn’t realized just how confining Israel was until she got away.

  Still, she longed for him. Last night I dreamed that I was at the beach, singing songs to a guitar. Y. was there and then he began to play and I started to cry. Why am I still thinking so much of him after all this time? I wonder—is he thinking of me, too? She crosses Washington Square Park in the half-light of a November afternoon, dead leaves swirling before her on the path. She looks up at the brick town-houses with their imposing stoops, the windblown sky. She’s fixed up her dorm room with a new bedspread and a potted cyclamen, tacked a travel poster to the wall—for the first time, I have a room that looks like my own!—but even so there is something loose inside her, sliding around like broken glass. She clings to the edge of independence, too frightened to look down. At moments I almost enjoy New York, being here on my own and free. But then there are so many nights like this, when I just feel lonely and self-pitying and sad. She tries to fill her emptiness with pain, holding Y inside her like an open wound, hating herself for her weakness, welcoming it as evidence that what she felt was real. But already she is having trouble conjuring up the image of his face. It is cracking like old paint.

  Soon there’s Herb or Richard, Len or Bill, flirting in the college library, taking her out to parties or Greenwich Village clubs. To them, she’s an exotic, with that alluring accent and her long dark hair. Had a fun time being bubbly, losing my voice over all the music and the noise! But I’m afraid I’ve been too free.... Before I knew it he had his arms around me and all I could think was, oh no no no you can’t, even though for the first time in forever, I actually felt alive. These American Jewish boys are nothing like the men back home—with their ties and blazers, their rosy cheeks and slouchy ways, they seem barely formed. They are like newborn rabbits, blinking in the light. What do they know of the world? She lies awake at four a.m., cold and restless, listening to the clicking of the radiator, a distant siren’s scream. She has not been back to Israel in more than two long years. In the grainy dark, she tries to picture home. She tries to remember the smell of the kerosene heater in winter, the feeling of the stone floor underneath her feet, the crackly call of a muezzin from a distant minaret. She thinks of her mother, knitting in the rocking chair in the alcove outside her room. If there is another woman there now with Abba, she doesn’t want to know. She pulls out her memories of Y, replays them like a tape. She listens for that soft choked sound deep in his throat as he touches her face and whispers, Is it really you?

  Figurine ~ This time, they would have known the end was near. Word would have traveled of the capture of Damascus, the destruction along the Mediterranean coast, the fall of Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Gilead, ever closer to Hazor. They broke down their old houses and reused the stone to shore up the defensive walls. They built a tower on the northwestern point, an ashlar bastion with a hidden gate, an enormous storage silo lined with stone. But none of it was any use. The conflagration raged for days, just as it had in the days of King Jabin, five hundred years before. It blackened the foundation stones, left charred beams and plaster strewn across the ground. The ash fell one meter deep and black.

  Even now, you will find evidence of the Omrides’ decadence and sin, buried in the ash. Here is a woman’s ivory cosmetic jar, carved with a cherub and a human figure kneeling beneath a “tree of life.” A stone palette with a concave depression in the center for grinding kohl. An incense ladle. A clay figurine of Astarte, the fertility goddess of the cult of Ba’al, her hands raised to her naked breasts. The skeleton of a pig.

  The prophet Isaiah shook a finger at the Israelites, now banished from their land. See what happens when you disregard the ways of God.

  The telephone rang while Avraham was still asleep, penetrating only slowly the fog of a complicated dream. An air raid siren was going off, a burglar alarm, a field telephone. His phone. He fumbled for the receiver, knocking over his clock, squinting in the daylight streaming through the blinds.

  Professor Avraham Bar-On?

  It took him a few moments to understand that it was a reporter calling, looking for a comment about Feigelman’s appearance on TV. The reporter spoke a halting Hebrew with an American accent; when she switched to English, she sounded just like his niece.

  Did he believe the Bible contained no historical facts—that the biblical stories were only myths?

  It is not a simple topic, he heard himself say, raising himself onto an elbow and trying to clear the roughness from his throat. You can’t throw out the entire Bible because some facts don’t line up. But you must also understand that with the Bible there is no such thing as objective history, even if some stories contain a core of historical fact.

  Would he agree then with the statement that the Patriarchs did not exist?

  I don’t know, he said. It is certainly possible that they did. But it is also possible that the stories came out of ancient folklore instead. The fact is that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron wasn’t built until Roman times. From an archeological perspective, there’s no positive evidence to prove either view.

  But couldn’t the Palestinians now claim a greater right than the Jewish people to the land?

  Avraham coughed. Will anti-Semites make use of these ideas? Sure, yes. But look, here are the facts. At some point the Israelites emerged as a distinct group; about this, there is no dispute. Did it happen in the thirteenth or the tenth or the seventh century BCE? Any way you look at it, we’ve been here a long, long time. And if we were all Canaanites first, then nobody has a claim over the other at all, right?

  So in your view archeology can shed no light on the true narrative of Jewish history, Professor Bar-On?

  That isn’t what I said.

  Thank you very much, Professor, for your time.

  The day was a write-off as far as work was concerned. His editor would just have to wait. Avraham put on a baseball cap (a gift from one of the Texan volunteers) and set out for the long walk to Ezrath Nashim. He still felt groggy despite the two cups of strong coffee he’d made after getting that damned reporter off the phone. He walked along the hillside road, ignoring the pain that radiated through his lower back. It was good to walk.

  Maybe today his wife would recognize him. He still held out that hope, even though he couldn’t remember the last time Eva had had a “good” day. Usually she just muttered at him in Hungarian, or stared into space. Or maybe she’d mistake him for her father, as she sometimes did. The worst days were when she didn’t even mistake him for someone else. Who are you? she’d shout, straining at her chair. What are you doing here? It was a good question. Still, she’d been his wife for over forty years.

  It was strange, Avraham thought, mea
suring his pace as the road began to slope uphill, how the biggest events in life weren’t necessarily ones you wrote about, the way that you’d expect. Avraham knew that Leah met her husband, Ezra, during those first years in New York, yet he hardly showed up in the diary at all. He was like background noise, a presence but far from the main event, showing up in glimpses between descriptions of trips to Jones Beach with Doris, or dates with Len or Rich or Bill. Ezi was madly in love with her, that much was plain, even between the lines. I said something about how wonderful it would be to have a child someday, and he gave me one of those looks of his and said, “Don’t talk like that.” He knows she’s flirting with the idea, trying it on like a too-expensive gown. But he’s familiar, a fellow Israeli, a safe bet—a man she can imagine being married to. But is marriage what she wants at twenty-one? I’m afraid he does care too much (and yet I don’t want him not to care). She stumbles over the double negatives, trying to convince herself. Still, he is a good friend and I do feel happy when he’s around. Maybe she’s afraid to let him become more than just a friend. Or maybe it’s more complicated than that. Maybe he simply doesn’t make her knees grow weak, her heart rise to her throat. But Ezi is persistent if nothing else. If he can’t knock her off her feet, he’ll make sure he’s there to catch her when she falls.

  Avraham stopped in a shady spot near the crest of the hill, taking out his handkerchief to wipe his brow. He was breathing hard, his heart flopping like a fish. Eitan would be angry if he found out he’d walked all this way. He was as imperious as Abba now that he was a doctor; ever since he started to lose his hair, he looked just like him, too. Funny how the genes persist. The breeze riffled through the leaves overhead, cooling the sweat that trickled down his back beneath his shirt. Even now, he could remember the day Abba died as clearly as if it had happened just the other day, instead of thirty-nine years ago in July. He remembered standing in the Post Office, his sweat evaporating in the stale breath of a fan, hollering through the partition to the telegraph clerk. Abba had a massive heart attack. Stop. Come home next flight Pan Am. Stop.

  But Leah hadn’t caught the next flight home. She’d arrived in Jerusalem three days later, after Abba was already in the ground, without even calling to let them know that she was on her way. He almost didn’t recognize her when he opened the door and found her there in that short black dress, her hair cut shorter, in a modern flip. He hadn’t seen her in over two years. They went together to the cemetery the next day. Leah knelt by the grave and touched the freshly overturned dirt with her fingertips. She picked up a little stone and weighed it in her hand.

  Leah stayed in Jerusalem that whole summer of 1962, there in the Sanhedria flat. He and Eva had already moved to Givat Shaul, and for the rest of that summer he was digging down at Tel Arad, trying to make headway on his Ph.D. Leah was hardly a child then, and yet, now that he looked back, he felt guilty for leaving her there alone. He didn’t get around to clearing out the flat until after she’d gone back to New York, and he was dismayed to find Abba’s toothbrush still on the bathroom sink, his trousers still draped over the arm of the bedroom chair. He had to fight back the urge to douse the place in kerosene and send it up in flames. In the end, he’d packed up the mantle clock, his mother’s Pesach dishes and Shabbat candlesticks, some photographs—Leah’s diary, as well. She didn’t ask for anything and neither did Zalman. He kept those things, and gave away the rest.

  Eva was sitting in a chair to the side of her bed, her head lolling forward, asleep. Her chest rose and fell with each shuddering breath, a trickle of drool pooling in a dark stain on her green hospital-issue shirt. Everything here had a greenish tinge—the walls, the tile floor, fluorescent light on skin. He looked around; there was no other chair. He sat down on the bed instead and, after a moment of consideration, tucked the pillow behind his neck and stretched out his legs. The walk must have tired him out, after all; a spreading fatigue weighed on him like the lead vests used as X-ray shields. They’d strapped Eva to her chair again, and for a moment her arms jerked back against the restraints, then went limp again.

  Avraham always talked to Eva, the way people talk to victims of deep comas or catastrophic strokes, as if, at some remote level, language might still get through. He told her about his visit to the university, about the disastrous drop-off in volunteers, the stalled article, about finding Leah’s diary. He didn’t tell her he had read it, though—she wouldn’t have approved of his snooping into Leah’s private words. Eva had strict ideas about peoples’ boundaries, the limits of one’s space. She’d never pried into Avraham’s personal things—never peeked into his mail or poked around inside his desk. And because she trusted him, in such a complete and unjustifiable way, he never hid anything from her. Or maybe he’d just understood that she would find out anyway.

  A nurse entered with the lunch cart, sliding a tray onto the bedside table, but Eva didn’t stir. The nurse frowned at Avraham, muttering in Russian, and backed out of the room. The tray contained a square of grayish meat, some limp green beans and potato cubes, an anemic-looking salad, a cup of chocolate mousse. Avraham stuck his finger into the swirl of whipped cream on top of the mousse and gave it a hopeful lick. But the meal was kosher and the cream wasn’t made from milk, and it left a chemical aftertaste on his tongue. He didn’t look forward to trying to make Eva eat when she woke up.

  Avraham took off his glasses, resting them on his chest, and shut his eyes. Eva would have laughed at his attempts to piece together Leah’s story, his fanciful theories based on the most tenuous of facts. Young girls keep secrets, she would have said. The most obvious explanations are usually the truth. Probably she was right. Leah went back to New York, married Ezi, raised a daughter and two sons. She made a good life for herself; no one could ask for more. Still, there was something that bothered him about the last section of her diary, something in the chronology that didn’t quite seem right. But right now he was too tired to think. The muffled sounds of the hospital closed over him like water, and he slept.

  Burial Jar ~ The jars lay buried in virgin soil beneath the earthen floor of houses built in the sixteenth century BCE. Inside the jars—infants’ bones. Tiny skulls and femurs, vertebrae and ribs, curled like crustaceans in their shells. Milk-filled juglets for the afterlife resting by their heads. These were not child sacrifices, as at Hinnom—not with so many burial jars beneath the floor of every house. This was how life was then.

  Folded tightly inside wombs of clay, babies dreamed their mothers floating overhead, while underneath the soles of their bare feet, the mothers felt their babies move again as they’d once moved inside of them—the tiny spasm of a hiccup, the ripple of an outstretched hand.

  Avraham woke to a sudden scream and shouts.

  What is this man doing in my bed? Get him out of here! Out!

  The Russian nurse who’d brought the lunch was bending over Eva, trying to stop her from tipping over the chair. It is just your husband, Madame Bar-On, she said. Spaseeba, calm down, please.

  Avraham sat quickly upright, sending his glasses skittering to the floor. He swung his feet off the bed, squinting to see where the glasses had gone. The room was washed in shadow, and the food on the tray beside him looked congealed. How long had he been asleep?

  What are you talking about? Eva shouted, jerking her head from side to side.

  Avraham crouched down on his hands and knees, groping for the glasses along the floor. A sudden surge of anger rose like reflux in his chest. Why did he bother? Eva was as good as dead.

  Don’t worry, the nurse said, bending to pick up the glasses, which had slid beneath Eva’s chair. The nurse gave him a thin smile that revealed the glint of a gold front tooth. She don’t know what she say.

  What is he doing here? Eva said again, whimpering now, tears of confusion and rage running down her face.

  The glasses were missing one lens, but Avraham put them on anyway and continued to sweep his hands along the gritty floor. There was the lens, over by the bedside tab
le. He snapped it back into place and rose, wiping the lopsided glasses on his shirt.

  Don’t worry, he said. I’m leaving now.

  Out in front of the hospital, a taxi was idling in the sun. Where could he go? Not to the university. Not downtown: since the Sbarro bombing, all the coffeehouses were dead. He fought the urge to get out of the cab and check into the hospital himself. There someone would bring him meals on trays and fresh white sheets. Maybe there he could sleep. The driver twisted his head back, turning up his palms. Nu? he said. Avraham gave up and gave him his address.

  He could hear the telephone ringing inside the flat as he fumbled with his keys, but by the time he pushed open the door, it had stopped. With the blinds shut against the sun, the flat had the dim and airless quality of a tomb. It even smelled unfamiliar, after the antiseptic hospital air—it had the stale, decaying breath of an old man. He sat down at the table, leaving the blinds closed. The pile of junk mail, the stained coffee mug, the notepad with its cryptic scrawl, all looked like archaic artifacts, the detritus of someone else’s life. He thought of Leah, there in the Sanhedria flat with a dead man’s toothbrush and discarded clothes. She wrote almost nothing in the diary that final summer, as if she couldn’t bear to listen to her own voice. Enough drivel about how I feel, enough boring self-analysis. Someday I’ll go back through all this and think, how could I have thought it was so important? Maybe nothing was worth remembering after all. I can’t write, not today at least. I’m tired of this book, of talking to myself. I never feel that I’ve quite captured this moment or that scene, having left out, on purpose or by accident, the most important thing. Flipping back now through these pages, all I notice are the gaps. She’d given up on words, on trying to preserve the past.

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