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Jewish Thought

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by Elisha Porat

Translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks


I met Tzila Biran, a young woman from a large northern kibbutz, at one of Professor Rosenfeld's lectures. I was late because the lecture was not in its usual place. Professor Rosenfeld drew such a large crowd of young people that the small classrooms in the liberal arts building could not hold them all, so the professor moved from one large, vacant hall to another. Though it was impossible to know where his talks would be given, his audience loyally followed. When I arrived, the students were pilfering chairs from the next rooms. The audience overflowed out the door into the corridor. I pulled up a chair and joined those at the front to catch a few of the professor's pearls of wisdom. Tzila came in and sat beside me. I saw at once that she was an attentive and very diligent student.

The professor spoke of the teachings of Rabbi Soleveitchik who, from his home across the sea in New York, was carrying on, in a manner of speaking, the tradition of his Lithuanian forefathers. Even as he offered a nod of respect to the free thinkers, he intended his remarks as well for his followers living in Zion. Her book open before her, Tzila closely followed his discourse. Each time he quoted a passage from his own copy, she moved her lips in unison. I noticed that she had a heavy, soiled cloth bookbag and wondered if she came to Jerusalem for a day or two as students from remote kibbutz settlements often did. Her hands were those of a laboring woman, and I detected the hint of a fine, light mustache above her lip. She was seated so near me that I heard her every movement and observed her every motion, however slight. When I allowed myself this small liberty, I could also draw into my lungs the scents of her body and her clothes, and even of the bag set on the floor by her feet.

At the end of each lecture, I would meet some friends in the building's little cafeteria. Over cups of coffee and dry crackers, we mercilessly dissected the presentation, Rabbi Soleveitchik and his students. We held in high esteem only Professor Rosenfeld and the lovely, charming girls squeezing their bodies between the cafeteria's closely- spaced tables. By the time I slipped my volume into my black bookbag and straightened up to see who and what was around me, Tzila was almost out the far exit. Her movements were so quiet, and her gait so stealthy, that I never heard her gather up her papers, move her chair and sling the heavy cloth bag over her back. From behind, her walk seemed somewhat clumsy and her blouse, which fell a bit short, flapped loose at her sides. A sudden and inexplicable wave of affection for her swelled within me. Long after she disappeared up the stairs, I saw her lips echoing the book open before her.

I learned my lesson and, the week after that, arrived early at the liberal arts building. I then had plenty of time both to ascertain exactly where Professor Rosenfeld's lecture would be held and to plan how I would meet Tzila as she descended the maze of stairs. I already knew her name, which was stitched in violet thread on her bag, and even the northern kibbutz where she lived, whose delivery stamp I had glimpsed when I peeked at her open book. All that, however, merely whetted my curiosity. I saw before me a young woman who had long since outgrown her youth. She surely was a teacher of Jewish thought pursuing advanced studies on sabbatical, taking the trouble to recharge batteries drained by hostile, apathetic classes who shuddered at the very term "Jewish thought."

Again the hour grew late, but still Tzila had not arrived. The professor began his lecture and the usual spectacle unfolded before us. From rooms close by, some of his young, faithful students dragged chairs into the corridor so that, god forbid, torah-lovers coming from afar would not lack a seat. I had already made a number of trips to the water cooler and poked my nose into the filthy men's room again and again, read with boredom each plate on the doors up and down the hall and even stood at the cluttered notice board to discover how nerve-racking and stressful life was for young students. Every inch of the board was plastered with notes seeking or offering tiny rooms in old apartments, notices of mental health self-help courses and countless invitations to parties, tennis matches and special religious services.

She arrived at last. From a distance, I recognized her awkward limp caused by the weight of her bag. I tarried just long enough for her to grab a chair and join the river of students overflowing its banks. Then I too went forward, took a chair and pressed behind her so close that I could stick out my tongue and lick the hair on the nape of her neck. My eye lingered as she set out her books, drew forth the wide sheet of paper on which she liked to scribble and ran her tongue over the spot on her upper lip where the faint line of fuzz sprouted. I saw next how she gave her undivided attention to the professor's remarks. She bobbed her head in agreement at the proper times and silently mouthed every question he permitted. When he asked for volunteers to read aloud selections from Rabbi Soleveitchik's works, I saw her legs tense to rise, but others in the hall were faster. The professor could not see how ready she was, how responsive to his every whim.

At the end of the lecture, I was quick to follow her. I carefully climbed the stairs after her and out of the liberal arts building into the darkness falling on the campus. I trailed her slowly, matching my pace to hers, until she passed through the university's gate and walked up the busy street to the central bus station. Unbelievable, I said to myself, she's not staying in the city. I sensed in her a stubborn determination. She went ahead resolutely and without stopping. Someone is waiting for her on the kibbutz way up north. Someone there needs her very much. I stood by the ticket windows until I saw her pick up her bookbag and get on the last bus to Haifa.



B.

Tzila Biran spotted me another time as I walked arm in arm with a friend through the rented booths of the book fair. "Your wife is a very beautiful woman," she said, lowering her voice, after one of the lectures. I laughed so hard that she drew back her chair.

"That wasn't not my wife," I said. "She's a friend who works as an editor at one of the publishing houses."

"It's not important," she replied. "Please forgive my mistake." From what she had said that, I gleaned that if I had any romantic intentions towards her, I had better keep them to myself. I suddenly remembered seeing a young woman who resembled her at the book fair. She had sat by one of the displays studying a catalogue and never looked up at the stream of passersby. My friend had asked me about a book and I had been distracted from Tzila's stooping figure.

Only later did I recall the hair on her nape so familiar to me and the prim collar of her blouse. I had come to know them very well from my observations during the weekly lectures. Had my inattention offended her?

I invited her that night to relax with our little circle of barbed wits after the professor finished his lesson. She shouldered her heavy cloth bag and, without saying either yes or no, started in her camel-like gait towards the stairs. I did not allow her to escape. I sprang forward, blocked her way on the stairs and said, "Come on, Tzila, have coffee with us in the cafeteria. You won't be sorry." She shook her head no, but I had the feeling that she did not want me to let her go and dragged her down to the next floor, where the group had already taken seats at our little table. They pulled up extra chairs when we arrived and made room for us.

"Sit down, sit down. After the distilled wisdom of Professor Rosenfeld, everyone needs to unwind. Don't be like all those kibbutzniks always hurrying for the last bus with a glance at their watches and apologizing that they haven't the time to stay."

Tongues wagged around the table about Rabbi Soleveitchik and his eclectic rabbinical language. On the other hand, some commended him for distinguishing the essential from the trivial. For some reason, the group believed that if he were in Jerusalem, he would lead the ultra-Orthodox camp against the hot-heads of "Gush Emunim."

Tzila suddenly spoke up. Flushing all over, she gave us a disjointed account of the time she had seen sleeping bags rolled up at one a yeshiva she had visited. In all innocence, she asked the rabbi's wife, "What are all the sleeping bags for?"

"What, don't you know?" the rebbetzin scolded her. "We leave each Friday night to sleep at a new settlement."

My ever-rowdy companions remained silent and let her finish the story without interruption. "This dark fanaticism," said someone in the stillness that prevailed around the table, "will someday lead us to tragedy and drown us in rivers and rivers of blood. The sleeping bags are only new symbols for an old world of sanctified greed."

I fixed my gaze on her. She suddenly appeared so warm that my hand, as if of its own, nearly reached out to cradle her neck. Her eyes seemed out of focus and she did not know which way to turn her fevered face. One could see that she had been careless in choosing her clothes, which were in disarray. She bent to sip her coffee as though unaware of the others around her and the reviving noise. Our sharp tongues ranged over every subject within reach, lazy teachers and dull students and Professor Rosenfeld's blind admirers. Some other day, I would gladly have made myself a part of the wicked festivity raging around the table, but Tzila Biran's mute threw a damper over me. I could not forget that it was I who had persuaded her to break her settled routine, to deviate just once from her wild dash to the bus station.

When she stood up, so did I, and when she turned towards the broadstairs leading to the spacious grounds above, I turned after her. Where was it she was in such a hurry to go after the lectures? "Why haven't you taken a room in the dormitories or near the university?" I asked her, and added, "Perhaps I can help you in some way."

"No thank you," Tzila answered. "I don't need any help. And please don't go to any trouble. Anyway, I can't stay in the city."

"Are you going back to your kibbutz in the north? What time do you get home? And how do you travel at night? Alone all the way every week? Now that's really crazy."

"I haven't any choice," Tzila replied. "I have a little girl who waits up for me at home every night."

"But you have a husband and parents and friends," I said. "You can make arrangements. I know kibbutz life."

She blushed in the dark, and I could feel the color jetting to the base of her neck. After a brief silence, she said, "No, that is impossible. I live alone with my child, and I have to get back."

I accompanied her, saying nothing, to the central station. I began to suspect that she was concealing something in her life from me. I suddenly felt sorry for the young woman beside me. I wanted to switch bookbags, so that I would carry her heavy bag while she took mine, but she refused. If I could have thought of some idea that would relieve her depressing silence or ease her camel-like gait, I would generously have offered it, but nothing that would lift her spirits her came to mind.

The same old story, I thought to myself. Callow youths rashly married, pregnant too soon, the baby practically a surprise and then the father ups and leaves. That's not how he saw his life, perishing among heaps of notebooks and the gripes of a weary teacher. And then again, maybe not.

Perhaps hers was one of the heart-wrenching legacies of the war. A wonderful marriage, a brief, glorious summer full of promise and happiness, then her young man called down that autumn to the Suez Canal, never to return. You could read sad stories like that ad nauseam in the pages of the weekly supplements. But I did not permit myself to ask her any personal questions.

Before she boarded the bus, I did ask how she had liked our little coffee klatch in the cafeteria. She smiled at me and tucked in the wayward tails of her blouse. "If you did, make it a habit with us. It's a weekly meeting. We'll start with coffee with the gang and see how it goes." She smiled again and propped up her cloth bag so she could lean against it during the long ride.

I told her I had a small room among the dormitories in Jerusalem. If she preferred that to the table in the cafeteria, we could drop by my lodgings. "Just ring twice." Beads of perspiration began to glisten through the fine, light strands of youthful peach fuzz on her upper lip. As the bus pulled way, I slowly left the station, my heart heavy with the words I had failed to speak.


C.

One day, Professor Rosenfeld assembled the faithful after the completion of his lecture and invited them to his home. I turned to Tzila and asked if she would go with me.

"What for?" she asked. "What's so special about his house?"

"It's some family celebration, I'm sure," I answered. "But the highlight comes later when the professor offers personal comments, straight from the heart, to his favorite students. Come on, we'll tag along with them one time. You'll see, it'll be interesting." She hemmed and hawed but I insisted. "And if it gets late and you can't make it home tonight, I'll take care of you," I said. "I'd be happy to share my room in the dormitories with you." She still hesitated. Her hands fiddled with the notebooks and texts in the bag at her feet. Finally, she looked at me and the lecture hall growing empty.

"Why don't we leave our bookbags at the coat racks," I suggested, "to take a load off our feet?" But Tzila would not part from her bag and slung it over her shoulder. I had to clutch my black bookbag and hurry after her for fear that she would lose her nerve somewhere on the stairs and resume her usual route to the bus station.

She did not change her mind. We walked side by side down the steep short-cut to the eastern gate and sailed through a dense thicket fragrant with the fresh smell of pine needles. The white rock came into view occasionally. Tzila nearly tripped over it and when I caught her fall, she willingly held on. We slowly descended to the exit in the wadi. She suddenly was moved to tell me of a sweet gesture made by her students, who knew of the long hours she spent traveling south on the suffocating bus to Jerusalem and back. Some days before, two girls had risen at the end of a routine lesson, stammered something about the need to renew one's zeal and drive, and presented her a huge thermos. She had been touched. It was a gift from the whole class, the girls said when she tried to thank them, even those students who could barely tolerate Jewish thought.

"It was as though they knew how every penny I save goes to building a basic library in Judaism, and how thirsty I get on these insane bus rides."

Many guests had already gathered at the professor's house. The party was in full swing. He had put on a wholly different face and appeared before his faithful as a genial family man, befriending strangers and introducing outsiders into the infectious good cheer of his home. After announcing the family celebration and raising his glass for a brief toast, he turned to the real business at hand.

"The time has come," the professor began, "for us to start sharing some of the riches we have stored up over the school year. There are others less fortunate than we, even some who know none of the joy of Judaism and the crowning glories of Israel. He who is wealthy," like the professor and his faithful students, "must know that the essence of all learning is simply this: give of yourself to others."

He had already consulted a select inner circle of confidants to whom he had presented a plan we would surely approve There was no better time to reveal its main points, that we might begin our sacred task at last.

Tzila and I sat by the door somewhat apart from the crowd at the professor's feet. Most of them were excitable youths. Though they crouched on the floor under his desk, not much was required to inflame their passion. At once, they began drafting "working papers" and formulating proposals. The professor turned the reigns of the meeting over to one of his students while he mingled with his darlings. The enthusiastic young students talked about soldiers they had met stationed at outposts in the Jordan Valley, withered not by the heat of the sun but by a void in their hearts. How those people yearned, openly or not, for a sweet drop of welcoming the Jewish Sabbath, for the warmth and beauty bestowed by the forgotten customs of our fathers. It was not only soldiers who hungered for our message. There were also youths in their thousands, in the towns springing up around Jerusalem, who were just waiting for the good tidings about to gush from this room. We should all know that this nation had a great thirst for Judaism. Here we were, shut up in lecture halls, wasting our nights on pointless paperwork in libraries, while outside real life hummed, fates were fixed and events decreed. Where were we? What was our contribution? Would we squander this historic golden moment?

I saw where his remarks were leading and whispered to Tzila that we were no longer needed here. We could not plunge into the valley to canvass the outposts or depart for the youth recreation centers in the villages nearby to prepare the boys for their bar mitzvah ceremonies. We two, who had come a long way to draw some warmth from Professor Rosenfeld's light, were exempt from the holy crusade on which his students were embarking. We rose unobtrusively, slipped through the youths who packed the doorway and even sat on the stoop outside, and retreated to the peace of the street. I invited Tzila to my room in the dormitories. So my offer would seem honorable and upright, I added that the dorm had a well-stocked library on the second floor, a small self-service snack bar and even a humble synagogue where the students themselves conducted services.

Tzila was quite hungry, so we took seats at the snack bar. The time had long since come and gone for her usual trip home, but I did not dare to ask any questions. I was afraid she would rise and leave, and this opportune moment, which had unexpectedly presented itself to me, would pass in vain. While I ordered whatever she wanted, I told her that she could ask me a little about myself. I was trying to strike up a conversation, dispel some of our uneasiness. She inquired about my family, my wife and children, and I noticed that she was listening intently to my perfunctory replies. Out of the blue, she asked where I had been during the last war. I warned her that that was a dangerous question. I had so much to say, my remarks would be more numerous than the sands of the sea and seven nights would not suffice to hear even a small portion of them. Still, since she had asked, I told her something of the interminable months I had lived through and gave her the merest taste of my innermost thoughts about the war.

She listened, absorbed, to my account. Suddenly, she blushed from her throat to the V-neck of her blouse. She turned red so quickly that I wanted to lay my open hand over the blotch, as if I had been exposed to the forbidden sight of her flesh stripped naked before me. Averting her eyes, she asked if I had returned whole from the war, mentally sound, that is. Had I not abhorred my wife when I came back? Had I not detested my children? Had not our room on the kibbutz felt like a cage? And the grounds of the commune, the soil and the lawns, had they not repulsed me each time I trod them?



D.

I hoisted her heavy bookbag for the ascent to my room on the second floor. "Here's the public phone, do you see it? And here to the right is the synagogue. At the top of the stairs is the roof, a huge, cracked spread of tar and plaster and pigeon droppings. Although the girls complain that it's unpleasant to sunbathe up there in the mess, it does afford a wonderful view of the mountains south of the city, Mt. Gila, the monastery below it and Bethlehem in the distance. No, wait a minute," I told Tzila. "Take a seat in this old armchair and I'll put some tea on to boil. You see, the room may be small but it has everything, a sink, a toilet and an electric kettle. I don't have to run for the bus at night like a madman. Now sit down and tell me everything, how he went off to war and what happened to him before he came back. I'm beginning to understand some things for myself, like your Jewish studies and why you have to travel while your daughter stays home alone."

As I poured the tea, I had the urge to place my rough palm on her crimson throat and bosom, but she looked at me with those short-sighted eyes of hers and licked drops of sweat off her lip. She seemed so dependent on me that I knew I could not so much as lay a finger on her. She choked on her words and it was unclear to me whether she really wanted to tell me of her life or the comforting conditions I had forced on her had put her in the mood. Professor Rosenfeld's name had come to her attention at just the right time, when the routine of her life was broken. In the beginning, there were only the trips with her husband to the hospital in Haifa for extended treatment following his return from the war. There had been consultations, discussions and sleepless nights, after which the kibbutz advised her to leave and go her own way so she might rebuild what the war had destroyed. But life is not so simple.

I sat beside her, sipping tea and urging her to drink with me. I sensed things that she had not spoken. He had returned from the war crippled in spirit. Long days and nights of semi-consciousness and then, when he came to, the refusal to recognize Tzila as his wife. He fell on her and asked, what she was doing in his room, what had she to do with him and the little girl? It was interesting that he had known the girl at once and embraced her without reservation. He had even told Tzila that she was not needed, he could take care of the child by himself. In the weeks after that, however, he went into decline, sinking into a deep sleep in which he forgot all his obligations and from which he did had no desire to wake. Then came more trips and doctors' visits. Finally, he abandoned their room hoping to settle himself into the home of his attending physician. With difficulty, the doctor convinced him to leave her house, but he would not return home to his ruined family.

Sometimes, in a rare period of sanity, he suggested that they amicably separate and even encouraged her to make a new life for herself.

She wept as she spoke. Her tears mingled with the tea in her cup. There was nothing I could do to stem the flow but put some paper towelets near her. Beyond the room's thin walls, young students working off excess energy raised a ruckus in the dorm. Loud music blared through the cracks and the sound of cushions thrown at the furniture thudded from their rooms. Soon they would begin to jump around and race like the devil through the hall shrieking with abandon. I was all too familiar with my neighbors' habits. I had once made the naive mistake of going out to calm them down. I had lost my breath instead as a captive impressed into their hallway sprints.

One incident more than anything else had cut her to the quick and inflicted an healable wound. Others had seen him wandering one night across the lawn, lugging bedding to the room of a good friend of hers. That insult had finally made up her mind. Never mind that he left for war hale and hearty and came home from the Suez Canal a broken shell of a man. Never mind that a doctor had tended him day and night, and that he had made promises and swore to their daughter oaths he never kept. But to pick himself up after all that and slink into that woman's room, on the other side of a patch every damn inch of which was observed by a thousand eyes, that was more than she could bear. It was then, when she went to pieces and even was neglecting her beloved students, that she proposed continuing her education. She would have been required to do so anyway and, if not for the war, which delayed her schedule, certainly would already have begun her leave. Friends recommended the professor in Jerusalem who offered balm for afflicted souls and she resolved to go despite all the hardships, the rushing and the fatigue and the uncomprehending looks of her students.

So, I told myself, it is not Rabbi Soleveitchik's commentary in progress, or age-old Jewish values miraculously transplanted to modern society, or the light burning unseen within us, or the wisdom of our fathers slumbering deep in our souls, or even the tireless efforts of Professor Rosenfeld to kindle the sparks dormant in us all.

It was a only matter of a small, frail woman, a stricken daughter and a man who, though sound of body when he returned from the Suez Canal, brought tragedy down on the three of them. I was no great sage. What had I done for her? Occasionally whispered jokes in her ear during the lectures? Dragged her to my circle of friends in the basement cafeteria? Mysteriously trailed her in the dark of the stairs to see what course she was taking and whether there was any chance I could deflect her to my room in the dorms?

And if I had done one thing or another for her, I also, most unfairly, had demanded much more from her in exchange.

It was purely by chance that matters had turned out one way and not another. It was luck that she was a woman riven by doubts and I too hesitant to take risks. Had we been different people, I would long since have insinuated myself into her mixed-up life, immediately after our encounter at the book fair or perhaps even earlier than that.

I looked at Tzila seated in my room and saw before my eyes another woman blooming through the image of neglect I knew. Who cared about the flapping tails of her blouse and her pants unstitching at the seams, or the uncombed hair on her neck and her perpetually disheveled collar, or the soft, blond down above her lips?

How deceptive one's eyes are. Nor can one rely too much on the murmurs of the heart. I had pushed my chair against hers so I might lean close and sniff the scent of her body, I had blocked her path on the stairs and forced her to descend with me to the cafeteria, and yet I had failed to see from the start what I had to see. If she had not blushed so startlingly that my hand of itself had sought to reach forward and clothe the flushing nakedness suddenly exposed, perhaps I would never have noticed her. And she would have been invisible among the crowd of students devoted to the professor who taught Jewish thought in Jerusalem.

© 1988 Elisha Porat



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