Elisha Home Elisha's Poetry Menu Short Stories Book List Poems 1 Poems 2 Poems 3 Poems 4 Poems 5 Poems 6 ">Elisha Links Olde Artvilla

A Demanding Regimen

Share Three Short Stories



Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

With the trepidation I still feel each morning at those moments of waking that once were so sweet. I am a witness to my presence in depressing events. I feel I've been cast into a demanding regimen. For this I don't blame anyone or the one who exists above us. I write the word "cast" with an acute sense that I'm the raw material being wrought. I find my self jammed into agonizing recesses of the forge as though all avenue of escape has deliberately been sealed. Someone is pounding my face and fingertips. Someone is painfully searing my elbows and knees. I can't get escape even by crawling out because the distance is too great for my aching bones. Before I fell ill, I was never thrown into so strict a regimen, and definitely not into so demanding and painful a schedule. But my self-withdrawl, a search for shelter and refuge, has pathologically addicted me to one thing: the inviolability of my regimen.

At the table in my small kitchen, I'm able to set before me the electronic wristwatch my beloved family gave me about a month before I became sick. I can sit by my green stationary pad and marvel at length without feeling any movement of the watch hands. This modern timepiece has a dual display. Below the white face marked with the familiar numbers is a digital display of pulsing, flickering seconds and minutes. I also can manage two tasks, perhaps even three. First, I jot down on the page the precise hour and date. Second, opposite the numbers I record the jobs I'm doing. I do the same ones each morning, the same movements of my hands and legs matched to the motion of the watch hands circling in electronic precision. And last, I gloomily ponder how I've fallen -- willingly surrendered myself, to tell the truth -- into the prison of my demanding regimen; how I've unflinchingly been cast into this without even seeking help from my family.

Perhaps I should be more specific at this point. I get out of bed at 6:30. It's early, exercise time in the youth movement days. While still in bed, a moment or two before rising, I stretch myself and roll towards the window. If it wasn't open while I slept, I open it now. I curl my frail body into the pillows, which reek from my incessant nighttime sweating. I inhale and exhale very deeply. Scorning the complaints of my neighbors on the other side of the thin wall, I do extra, take another breath and grunt loudly. I focus myself on my breathing machine, which is barely working. This is neither pleasure nor pain, a sort of total separation from the ominous morning and the wearying day. I close my eyes, opening and shutting every orifice. The fresh, damp air seeping through the cracks in the shutter flows through my body. I follow its course as it refreshes me, from the soles of my itching feet to the thinning hair on my head. Inhaled and exhaled, drawn in and doled out, consumed and absorbed again and again and again.

In the rehabilitation guide that a young friend gave me when I left the hospital, I find a complete philosophy distilled into dry rules. It had never occurred to me that the air flowing through my passages could purify and cleanse me. If I adhere to the prescribed course, but only this one, all my ailments will be cured by breathing in the morning air each day. But if I break the rules, or I'm not careful, God forbid, or say to hell with the directions and ignore them, or worse than that, adopt a program of rehabilitation other than the one in this book, I'm destined from the start to fail and remain tainted. The same air, the same body, the same man lying shrunken in his bed fearing the day compressed between the windows. And yet, just one little thought, one genuine intention, and everything can change, for good or bad. The plan is for everyone, to master evil and make it serve the good. And now, with the reins seemingly in my hands, now that I have the means for complete salvation not only of my soul but of my body as well, will I throw this away?

My bones ache from my morning breathing exercises. For some reason, the pain lingers. I hear a faint creak of bones popping when I suck fresh air from my chest into the hollow of my belly. Am I doing this wrong? It says here clearly that everything turns on execution. Good intentions aren't enough. The entire world could be filled with nothing but good intentions and results still would depend on execution. It makes the difference between the lower world of suffering in which we exist, our daily world of filth and illness, and higher halls of purity that start in a healthy body and end in firmaments never envisioned.

What am I to do? To whom do I turn in my misfortune? Who will still my doubts?And while I suffer through steadying my breathing, my strict regimen has consumed my early waking minutes. Already I must bend over the cracked sink and the leaky faucet and peer again at my face reflected in the mirror. This moment when I stand before the mirror is the most difficult of the entire morning. Gripped by an inexplicable fear, I survey my image in the glass. What has changed in me since last night? Have bad signs appeared in me overnight? And what is the meaning of all these premature wrinkles and blotches? Where is the oversize, up-to-date map of my face that I put away for safekeeping in my medicine cabinet? I must hastily pull it out and compare it immediately with what I see.

Now my breathing, purified by my exercises and toothpaste and mouth rinse, is racing along on its own. Why the hell is the bathroom light bulb so weak? Why, this is where I most need a strong light now. A pure, white glow by which I can contemplate again and again how fearful I've been for no reason, how wrong I've been about the darkness of the wrinkles and the fuzz on my spots. Well, I really do look fine this chilly morning.

On my bed lies a new book that our worried librarian gave me. I haven't managed to read it yet. I did take a quick look at the author's biography. In some books, the author's life story is more interesting that the contents. A remarkable, eccentric writer can grab you instantly at first sight. Someone whose life falls into three clear, distinct periods. Childhood and youth to the age of 20, with a few unsuccessful stabs at writing; then 20 years of hard work and fruitful production; and when he is 40, by my reckoning, childless and prey to dark moods, he abandons himself to his beloved family, which leads him to shelter in a closed institution. There, miraculously, he becomes a hero as the days and years go by. Riches and security are his within the walls. He passed the years in good health, never suffering a serious illness till the day he dies.

How did he maintain his body through all those long years? What preserved his spirit over the course of time? Only one thing: his uncompromising regimen, a daily routine that he obeyed to the letter as he would a religious ritual. Before I became ill, I was quick to mock a writer like that. How pleasant is it to pawn one's freedom for a life confined to an institution? How did he scorn his written work and refuse to be seen with his books? How did he vow never to hold a pen and magnanimously decline the work room offered him by the institution's physician for his writing? Today, however, it is easier for me to respect and even admire him. The way he found precisely the right moment in which to sever a way of life he no longer desired.

How he aimed, fired, and didn't miss. Exactly on the day when he abandoned himself to his family, which placed him within the walls, that is the moment he realized how vapid his writing till then had been and how vain were his literary aspirations. I bow to his greatness of spirit in that submission. He struck at the right moment and didn't leave even a single empty day in his life. And if the plan for his new life had been revealed to him one night, he wouldn't have walked to the mirror above his sink the very next morning after finishing his exhausting breathing exercises. He would have surrendered himself instead with raised hands to the eternal ritual of an exacting regimen.

Yes, I can understand him now. More than that, I can taste some of his twisted pleasures. Without taking a small step towards the other side, no one can understand the exhilaration he can feel from meticulous attention to a daily regimen's smallest details, the satisfaction both spiritual and physical from submitting to a timetable, the joy of humbling oneself before the passage of minutes and the ticking of seconds. True, others, those who remain outside the walls, will shake their heads at him. "A broken man", they'll say of him. A loser, someone who yielded to the terror of life. But I, who am I to judge him? I see him worshiping the narrow confines of his room. I see him gliding over the floor, on his face a look of absolute bliss from the humility of obedience.

I'm not as flawless as he. I still stray frequently from my schedule. I've never been his kind of perfectionist. Careless I was born and careless I remain. But even I, for all that, have started counting my steps when I rush to the dining room early in the morning to perform a daily ceremony: taking the morning newspaper from the rack and carrying a bowl of sweet porridge to my room.


Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

Several days after the television crew's filming, I decided to write my story, The Double. Some things I'd told the producer and others that I'd dreamed impelled me to write them down. I refused at first to get swept away. I still fear sudden passions. I don't know how my heart will do in the wake of my illness. And the usual hurdles deterred me. Why should I get carried away? Concerning this painful subject -- my recollections of the Holocaust in Europe -- others would make better witnesses. After all, I wasn't there. Who am I to make up stories and give ancient testimony? True, I know that the last eyewitnesses haven't long to live. When this generation passes with its memories, the Holocaust will be seen differently, through books, recordings, and the reconstructions of producers and photographers. The accounts may be drawn from life but not from the lives of those still living. It will depict the lives of the dead, of those who died during those terrible years and of those who died later, claimed one after another by disease, malnutrition, and neglect.

I initially planned at least to start the short story with the words: Please don't tell me what Europe is. For we have seen what the Europeans know how to do. We are the Jews, who are led like sheep on package tours of the other Europe. And then I want to play dumb and ask, did they burn us in ovens an Asia? Did the Asians, billions of people filling a vast continent, burn the Jews? Did the Africans or the Americans? I have the urge to continue ad absurdum, asking, did the Australians? The mind utterly rejects this. The Australians? Have my questions gone this far?

There is something pleasurable in these pointed questions. You, oh wise you, listen to me while I feign innocence in my questions, and the two of us know that the questions are inherently ridiculous. You can't even pose them. But I derive a certain vindictive satisfaction when I say it again: We've already seen what the Europeans know how to do so well. Nowhere else in the world has anyone done this so well. And don't tell us that only the Germans carried out this annihilation. That's too easy. That is a political response that enables us to conduct ordinary political affairs with other nations. It allows us each summer to rush there in droves. On the contrary, the more evidence we have, the more we realize: the Germans were never alone for even a moment.

When my story appeared in the newspaper around Memorial day, an old member came to me with a bitter complaint. That I wrote from boyhood memories, he had no quarrel with that. Each of us has the right to draw from the memories of our youth. But the question was, was this a proper use of that material? what sort of Jew was I, what sort of smart, sassy student, if I didn't even know that the idea of a double was entirely foreign to Judaism?

How could someone like me, eager to print newspaper stories about so grave a subject as the extermination of the Jews in Europe, have failed to learn his lessons? Hadn't I read the works of our sages? Hadn't I sufficiently learned from them the idea of a double had entered ancient Christian tradition in Europe from pagan origins? How had I conceived such a heretical thoughts? And to shame me further in my ignorance, he added that the concept of a double, who accompanies one from childhood through all the joys and sorrows of life, sprang from the ancient Germans, back when their tribes were gathering in dense European forests.

Here is the refutation, he said. You claim you were born with a double, a Jewish boy in Poland who bore your misfortune and went to the ovens in your place.Now look, you cub reporter, not only did you make sentimental and indecent use of this pagan concept, but you ignorantly and unwittingly introduced a Christian, German incarnation of it. Shame of you. If I were in your place, I wouldn't dare send another story to the paper until I sat down to study. Please take care never to display your ignorance in public again. Don't humiliate yourself before the whole world.

I didn't say a word to him. What could I have said? That many people had contacted me, some by letter, some by telephone and some in short notes, to tell me how deeply they identified with it? That some even had said that the short story perfectly expressed what they had felt for many years but had been afraid to reveal? That some readers had even photocopied the story and stored it among their private papers? There was even one woman from a town up north who told me that she would never let the story be forgotten and intended to reprint it in a special leaflet that she publishes in her village each Memorial Day. Yet our old, learned friend's criticism stung me. I realized again how dangerous it is to enter the public domain, where you're exposed to every threat. Anyone who wants to ridicule you does so without checking. Anyone who wants to curse you does it mercilessly. Anyone who wants to insult you insults you, and anyone who wants to preach preaches, and anyone who wants to prove your ignorance doesn't hold back.

I sent the television producer my story, adding several choice comments from my critic. "I imagine," I wrote her, "It was taken in exactly the opposite way I'd intended". The Germans invented the idea of a man and his double, and they also murdered the young Jewish boy whom I described as my double, the one who in his death bore the fate that I miraculously had escaped. She thanked me for the note and wrote that I shouldn't be concerned by any of the censure. The popular approval of my s tory would prove that. She herself had liked the story twice: first in the shade beneath the custard apple tree in my garden during the filming and again when she read it in the newspaper's literary section.

As usual, I went out for a short walk in the afternoon. It was a fine time of the year, the brief weeks between the rainy season and the first hamsin. Back when I was strong and healthy, I would leisurely stroll through the groves. I knew every dirt path and every short-cut, even the hidden gaps in the fences. I arranged my walk so that I never left the orchard. Whenever I reached the boundary, affording a view of the open fields and the blue-tinted hills of Samaria in the distance, I would have a feeling of standing right at the edge of a virgin forest. A dark tangle of trees over which the intoxicating scent of citrus hung in a heavy cloud.

In a neglected section of the groves, the field hands were burning pruned limbs, from which dark smoke billowed into the clear spring sky. Had the chimney smoke risen like this over the death camp ovens? And then an unexpected moment of revelation struck me, as though I'd been yanked from the sandy ground among the groves and thrust into the snowy fields beyond the electric fences. Around me chimneys towered above incinerator roofs. Smoke covered the low sky, pressing and thickening until it filled the air. No place was free of it. I felt myself choking, my eyes, the smoke enveloping me. As a terrible pressure suddenly crushed me, I looked up into the mass of smoke hovering over the fences. The smoke grew ever thicker, as though drawn from a gigantic pump beyond the cloud cover. The stench was awful, rank and cloying like the odor I'd had to smell in the city across from us, in the blue hills of Samaria, when it fell during the war.

And then, while I was all ruddy and my shirt drenched by a sudden heavy sweat, I felt relieved. In the sky above me spread a hole through which the smoke left with a piercing whistle. From all points of the sky the smoke was drawn, disappearing through the hole. The odor of incineration faded, replaced by a fresh scent on the breeze. I raised my eyes to see the hole bored in the heavens directly overhead. Why do environmentalists make a crazy dash to the south pole? I thought. And there are those doomsday reports of a hole in the earth's ozone layer. Meanwhile, right here over my head during my daily walk on a spring day, all the world's filth has been sucked through a small hole in the sky. For me, there is nothing new in the perforation of the ozone layer. The black sky over the crematoriums was punctured years ago. How else can you explain where all the scorched smoke went? Where did the stench of all that ghastly burning go? And where did the ashes from the incinerated fall? On the pure drifts of snow at the south pole?

The cinders of my double also were pulled through that celestial corridor, so farthat I couldn't change places with him when my time comes even if I wanted to. Then, when all this became clear to me with the certainty of revelation, I suddenly was able to finish my daily walk, which I diligently take on the recommendation of my doctors.


Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

I keep having the same strange dream: the small loamy lawn squeezed between the water tower and the old dining hall, filled with Legionnaires in crisp uniforms and silver helmets sparkling in the eerie, dreamy light. The points of their helmets cut through the bright sky far above. The rough Khaki neck flaps dangling behind their heads flutter in the breeze.

I can't say just when I first saw this fantastic vision, which always appears precisely between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m. Some nights, the nightmare and its after -- images are so disturbing that I wake up drenched in sweat, my heart pounding and blood roaring in my ears. This dream springs, I know, from my early childhood, when I saw Arab Legionnaires, resplendent in their uniforms and gleaming helmets, sauntering past the leopard cages in Tel Aviv little zoo. I saw them again later passing in an open military vehicle on the old Hadera -- Tul Karem road. They strode through the kibbutz like conquerors, I'm sure of that now. And they bore themselves with the air of rulers. I'm not mistaken about that now either, for I always watch from below, a young, frightened boy passed so close to the dear red earth in his hideaway that no error or exaggeration is possible.

I'm not alone in my dream. My mother usually is with me, she too strolling at some distance through the zoo, lost in engrossing conversation with her aunt from Tel Aviv. The minute details of some unsavory family incident, which crops up during their talk with the names of family members and forgotten relatives, excites my adolescent fancy. As she walks off with her aunt, my mother never notices the swarms of Legionnaires rapidly filling the zoo.

Or perhaps that is my absent-minded father with me, in a gray casquette that he often wore into the city. He is talking quietly yet warmly with a boyhood friend who left for the city after several good but unpromising years on the small kibbutz. He too is behaving customarily in every way and also has no sense of the threat beginning to brew within the boundaries of the zoo. What's going on, am I the only who feels war looming? Is only this little boy able to sense the danger invading the zoo through the holes in the fence? Or is my imagination multiplying fantasies ad infinitum, enough for many years of dreams? Some nights, my dreams repeat themselves with minor changes. One dream switches places with the next. The dream sometimes appears in a different guise. The scene is similar. Now we stand on a reddish field packed hard by barefoot children, close by the tent camp that existed on our small kibbutz in its early years. The tents form a white semicircle behind which, as in a slow-motion movie, the wooden scaffolding of the first multistory structure, later called the security building, slowly rises. Am I only imagining it or do I in fact recognize among the identical tents that special one in which my mother and father live?

The silver-helmeted Legionnaires are wandering among the tents. What the hell are they doing there? Seeking souvenirs? Looking for pictures? Prying into albums? And then they lead the kibbutz members, their hands bound with rough cords, from the bundles of hay, toward the gate to the groves. They're going into some remote field, the locus of secret fears. Do I stand there alone watching this drama or with other youngsters my age just as I? Dressed only in thin undershirts, we hide in the dense stand of eucalyptus trees watching, utterly helpless, as the lordly Legionnaires drive the members into the small tent camp.Weeping won't help now and you can't yell in a dream because the image immediately will dissolve, the hypnotic theater of memories will dim and I'll awake in my bed, covered in sweat, my pulse racing and the time on the clock glowing above my bed as usual between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m.

I'm certain that events of my early childhood blend into the dream. The fear of searches carried out by British troops. The terrifying siege of our neighboring kibbutz, Givat-Hayim, which ended in bloodshed and death and panic. A children's trip to the Tel Aviv zoo. A boy lost in the crowd and tumult. A boy whose mother's hands slipped from his grasp, separated from him by the rough jostling of foreign soldiers with khaki flaps fluttering behind their necks. But how are all these elements, each in their own exquisite logic leading inexorably to the next, fused in such a fantastic manner? How do they coalesce into a general picture of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, a small village on the fringe of Samaria conquered and occupied by the Arab Legion?

I return in my dreams to all too familiar features of the landscape: the old kibbutz pickup truck sunk in the sand somewhere east of the collective; deep paths of sand leading into the hills towards the feared village of Kakun; a group of tardy travelers stuck en-route past curfew; darkness, packs of jackals, roving gangs, and worst of all -- a treacherous engine that died in the most dangerous of places. Here I always stop and tarry. There are strange alleys flooded by images streaming from long-forgotten childhood dreams. The eye lingers over the soft, slowly darkening horizon where the dense orchards end and a view suddenly opens onto fields and gardens and caravans of camels bearing the melons of Kakun. Sweet watermelon juice trickles down the camels. In the fabulous chaos of the dream, I often see the juice transformed into blood right before my child's eyes. The blood drips from the camels' humps into the rich, black earth famous for its fertility. From the spot where the dripping blood seeps into the ground sprout castor oil plants, thousands of which once flourished in the groves. Some of them have remaind hidden in neglected corners from the teeth of modern farming. A group of men is sprinting from the idled pickup. Stray words are softly spoken. It's hardly a stone's throw to the kibbutz fence, yet there is a feeling of total abandonment and bloodshed. The dawdling boy must be dragged along so he won't hold up the others. I hear the effort required by this trek. I feel the moisture in the sweat-stained clothes, I tremble all over from the chill of the dew and fear and excitement.

The small band stops to rest and breathe beside the plum tree that once was hit by lightning. This is a familiar spot in my dreams. The east gate of the kibbutz isn't far from here. You can even trade shouts with the guards on the eastern side. The tree is completely charred, its scorched limbs frozen against the night sky. I'm terribly jealous of the children who saw flames shoot forth, followed by a billowing pillar of smoke, when the bolt struck the giant tree. I remember only its blackened skeleton. Occasionally, I ruefully regret having been born only after thefire. The blasted plum tree makes an arresting intersection in my whimsical dreamscapes. East of that point, terror reigns. Nearby lurk the Arab shepherds and packs of jackals run rampant. Then someone takes me by the hand and I'm in the cool sand on which I've landed. With a final effort, walking hard and fast, we must reach the kibbutz. We are wary of the deep shadows in the banana fields and steer clear of anything suspicious, avoiding all sudden movement and noise. Finally, we arrive, sweating but safe and sound, at the eastern gate.

At this point in the dream, I always crack under the tension building within me. I break into childish tears, uttering cries unintelligible even to me. Mercifully, once again I'm gently borne, comforted and caressed and muttering in that cryptic nocturnal language until I fall asleep. Although the language in my nightmares certainly has its own linguistic logic, its meaning is so elusive that I despair of ever comprehending it. To me, this is so much babbling in the night.

In that period between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m., there sometimes appears before me a nightmarish vision of the Ein-Hahoresh I knew as a boy. The past thrusts itself into the present. From the member's quarters groans erupt, babies cry and wail far off in the infant's house. I hear strange shrieks carried on the balmy night wind. However much I strain my ears, I can't fathom the nighttime howling from the hills. What is the source of this potent, macabre energy? What is it that causes the residents of this happy community such pain? In what language do dreamers of nightmares call out? Who do they summon in their agony?

In my nightly dreams, which follow laws over which I have no control, a distant vision often appears: the soft, white limestone path leading to Givat-Hayim. Barbed wire fences coil around the village. All the ground outside is pocked like a field of mole hills after a rainstorm. Armed British soldiers fill out the picture. I lie at the edge of the woods where the sewage gardens end. Deep fissures rend the trunks of the huge eucalyptus trees abutting the kibbutz fence. The resin drips, the aroma is good, the bark is rough to the touch. What more do I need to complete the memory? Am I lying there alone or some of my little friends with me? Had the firing already begun when we crawled to our vantage point or was it the first volleys that had aroused our juvenile spirits, moving us to hug the ground and crawl through the craters in the sewage gardens to the fringe of the thicket? By the concrete post at the gate nearby some people are crouching. There are cries and shouts. Someone screams during lulls in the shooting while others run. Shivers score my back, etched forever like scars deep into my memory and impressed into the dramas of my dream. One of my young friends suddenly shouts to me that the man at the gate, the one wildly screaming, is my father.

I look towards the gate and see my father, Elkeh Yosselevitch, the great, noble Elkeh, stricken with rage and bitterness. Is he the one so startlingly cursing the British soldiers? Is that really his mouth? Is that his tongue? Never in my life had I seen him so savage. The children warn me to be careful because the English are shooting. I'm torn in my dream. I yearn to run to him and warn him, to end his cursing, to be swallowed in his arms. But I cannot move from my place. Bound by the tight unbreakable bonds of my dream, I can only twitch and imagine myself calling, "Dad, Elk, watch out, bullets are flying everywhere. Take shelter. Hide in the shaft of shade behind the bunker". And from now on, in my nightmares of the English siege, which beset me whichever way I turn, the soft, white limestone path to Givat-Hayim knifes through it. Deaf to my cries, my father faces the gunfire, my tongue disobeys me and the heavy words emerge in that incomprehensible night language. At times, when I awake feeling agitated and utterly helpless, I contemplate myself in the silence of the night. Am I unwittingly also mingling my hoarse voice with the nightmare chorus on our little kibbutz? On the flood-lit sidewalk outside, are my cries to my father, too far away for me to reach him, heard by late passersby in that same nocturnal babble?

I've vowed to myself many, many times that I won't be lazy when i get up during the night; that I'll sit at ny desk and turn on the lamp; that I'll open the drawer and take out a pencil and begin writing in my notebook in an uninterrupted rush while the images I've just seen are still fresh in my mind, while I still bear the odors that enveloped me and my ears still ring with the roar of gunfire and the cries for help. My hands are damp and slippery from the sweat of my dreams. My heart throbs and a persistent, inexplicable tension racks my sleep-deprived body.

Later, glancing at the shadowy letters darting across my note pad, what I see in the hastily scribbled pages on my desk is not an imaginary Ein-Hahoresh or even the real, familiar one. What lies before me is a likeness of the strange nightmare version of Ein-Hahoresh beckoning me from the pages in that unintelligible language. I look wearily at my watch but the time is always the same: between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m.

© Elisha Porat

To Artvilla

Elisha's Home Page

Story Menu

Back to Top

Thank you for your visit to A Demanding Regimen. Take the Artvilla tour Bus to surfing for fun:
Payback Story
Abstract Egypt Painting
Abstract Art Paintings
Story by Elisha Porat ~ The Resurrected
Big Mamma Poem
The Moses Sililoquy
The Fiddle Man Song and lyrics
Wait in Vain Poem
So Little Time, No Red Poem
Far from Sidon Poem
Divisions of the Lost Poem
Cloud Poem
Israeli Poet ~ Elisha Porat
Right Like It Is
The Old Tiller, a poem by Charlotte Mair
When You Died Poem
Hands od the Artist Painting

Search Artvilla Link to this page

Highlight the text and copy