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Shell Shock [Story]

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Translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks


I.

Was I truly surprised to learn that Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov, the long-haired kibbutznik, had found religion?

Perhaps the news caught me a little by surprise, particularly when I first learned it. But as the hours passed that day, I convinced myself that Be'eri, tall and lean with a jittery, nervous air about him, had long been destined for a dramatic change in his life.

During our last tour of reserve duty, we had talked at length, and I had the impression that the young fellow across from me was searching for meaning in his life. He had grown weary of the kibbutz on which he had been born and raised. He was fed up with his friends, the way of life, even his family. I detected an undercurrent of pain in his remarks. At first, it was but a trickle; as the weeks went by, however, I understood that it was truly a flood. He told me that he had taken his troubles to friends whom he had known and respected from childhood. They had always had an answer for every question, but now, to his distress, they had disappointed him. Some put him off on flimsy pretexts. Others tired of listening to still another mixed-up youth whine about life on the kibbutz. Still others outright told him that he had a screw loose in his head: what he needed was not a heart-to-heart talk but immediate medical treatment.

Only one person gladly welcomed him and heard him out. The man served on the kibbutz secretariat after completing a long career in the regular army. After listening to Be'eri one time, he invited Be'eri for a second conversation and then a third. For some weeks, his door was open to Be'eri until the early morning hours. But his words, it seems, were not enough. Be'eri eventually understood that these long discussions would not bring him salvation. He needed a drastic change in his life. His soul needed to plunge to the bottom of a deep well. His body needed a life of ritual and sacrifices that would restore to him some of the meaning in his life he had discovered in the army. To his core, he yearned for new experiences to light up the darkness of the confining life he led from his narrow bed to his hard labor in the fish ponds.

When Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov joined our veterans' platoon, his appearance instantly caused a stir. His hair was extremely long and he kept a small transistor radio plugged into his ear all hours of the day. Instead of answering, he returned a bright smile. He was the first to get into bed. Had he shirked his duties right from the start? Had he begun skipping his assignments as soon as he arrived? I can no longer remember, but the men's condemnation of him was undoubtedly exaggerated. The scorn mounted after we learned that he had taken up religion. He would wrap himself in blankets on his bed, cover his head and commune with the little radio pouring out a stream of tunes.

He did not like encounters with the other men. He shrank from the close quarters around the fire. He hated the old stories the veterans, looking for a chance to talk, liked to recall at any moment. "These men," he told me once, "fill their days with nothing. Listen to what they say, see how they behave. How vulgar they are inside, how empty. It is as though nothing really noble exists in this world." "For example, like what?" I asked. "Like music," he immediately shot back excited. He told me then how many melodies coursed through him begging to be composed. If only he had just a little more time to spare, just a little more money, he would long ago have bought himself a decent tape recorder, cast aside all his affairs, climbed out of the stinking fish ponds and passed all his days composing music.

The men, who had watched with suspicion as we grew closer, were scornful of him. "This Be'eri of yours will end up someplace very far away. Don't you realize what a queer bird you have found? See how he searches out every tiny crack to jump inside and disappear. This is a soldier? Where did he serve before? Is there a unit in which anyone agreed to serve with him?" The most extreme among them were moved to register a complaint with our officers about the goldbrick who had come to us by mistake and would drag others down with him when he went over the edge. "We should get rid of him as quickly as possible, before he does something terrible." The officers listened and said, "OK, we'll take care of it." The army's manpower branch, however, moves at a maddeningly slow pace. And so Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov continued to serve in the unit for a year and then another until the war broke out.

From the moment the war began, Be'eri became another person. The old Be'eri was simply erased. He withdrew into himself and little remained of his tall, lean figure. My memory of him through all the months of the war is that of a short, bent man forever seeking the safety of the earth's embrace. If he spoke little before the war, he became totally mute the instant the battles began. Indeed, when I search my memory to pinpoint the time when I next heard him raise his voice, I believe it was only after the shooting stopped and after the shellings came to an end. That was shortly before he went to see a psychiatrist down in Haifa.

In fact, I heard him only after the dispute began over the private kitchen he had rigged up for himself. Had he trimmed his hair and changed his clothing? Had he appeared before the surprise call-up wearing a gleaming skull cap? All this has long since fled my memory. But the sight of him crawling in the bunker, his sleeping nook in the niche closest to the exit, the terrified way he wrapped himself in the tent flap, I will never forget.

The men no longer made him the butt of their jeers. Instead, they said that shell shock made him behave as he did. It was Be'eri's good luck that he had a mild case. He ought to be transferred to a camp for religious soldiers in Jerusalem rather than to some place worse. But there were also those who contended that every instance of his behavior during the war was fraudulent, well planned in advance. It was all a lie. In fact, he did play deceptive mental games, both for us and for his doctors, in the theater he invented for himself. For how was it possible to understand his bizarre behavior? On the one hand, he lay on the floor of the bunker day and night. He fed himself from a single package of halva and one canteen. He made not a sound but only shriveled a little more as each shell landed. On the other hand, just when everyone had given up on him, and told him to take the car and go to Haifa, he roared out of his lair like a lion, suddenly straightening up to his full pre- war height. He ran to the car with the stride of a gifted athlete. His driving was flawless, and he returned the car without a scratch.

Once, when he returned from one such trip, I came upon him at the entrance to the bunker. He had a cheerful smile on his face, but his eyes were those of the troubled kibbutz boy. A moment more, I thought, and he will pounce on me as he did in the old days. He will call me by the pet name he had coined and haul me off to the slope below the bunker. There, he will roll down a round basalt stone and goad me into running after it. "Smile, old timer, smile, let them see that you once had a wild streak."

But when I stopped to ask him, "Be'eri, what's been happening with you lately? We've all been called up like you," he signaled me with a frail motion of his finger. In an instant, he became a dwarf right before my eyes. He shrank and shrank until he once again assumed the twisted shape precisely matching the folded flap he pulled back at the exit from the bunker. I knew that I would not coax a word from his mouth, nothing but a faint murmur that could be interpreted in a thousand ways.

But it was the little private kitchen he had built himself, and the meals he ate alone, that sent the men flying off the handle. His foul habits so angered them once that they nearly gave him a beating. He avoided the men, meal times and his duties, and did not lend a hand with the clean-up. And at night...at night, he burrowed like a mouse behind the camp kitchen, nibbling the stale left-overs and crumbs of halva he scavenged from the heap of discarded boxes. He scrabbled about, opening this, removing that, leaving behind him the trail of a frightened odent. All this he did silently and secretly in the dark, in his stocking feet without shoes or a lashlight. The weary guards, wondering at the rustlings coming from the kitchen, caught him as he rummaged. They pummeled him to teach him a lesson, so he would know how soldiers eat in wartime, how they stick together through good and bad. With a shriek of panic, he slipped out of their hands, went tumbling down the slope and hid among the rocks until morning.

Was he not ashamed after the war of what he had done? Did he not regret his withdrawal from society? Was he not shaken by the hatred he aroused in his comrades? Or perhaps this truly was a case of shell shock, of an unknown type, that released its grip on him only many months later?

Is it possible that because I called back to mind those hard times, and Beer Ben-Ya'akov curled up like a helplessworm at the bunker's entry, I was not astonished to hear that he had turned religious?

II.

What a conscientious kashrut inspector he made for the Metulla police force while he served in the battalion. That was very hard to believe. It was as though he had changed his spots overnight. He volunteered to work in the kitchen, not because he wanted to evade the bone chilling night patrols but because he believed that only as a simple kitchen worker performing the vilest cleaning tasks could he keep a close eye on the unspoiled kashrut. He passed most of his time, from morning to the wee hours of the night, in the kitchen and the adjoining mess hall. On one of the utensil cabinets, he set a small stack of the Holy Scriptures. During the breaks between meals, he did not lock the doors as the assigned cooks did. On the contrary, he left them open, so any thirsty soldier could come and see him studying a book at his seat. Their conversation would go from one thing to another and, along with the white cup, he would place in the soldier's hand a photocopy of Rabbi Kook's essay, "Lights of Repentance."

He would return late at night to his little room at the end of the corridor and, as though he had not labored all the day washing pots, put on the warm slippers he had brought from home, sit on his bed and strum Hasidic nigunim on the guitar. When some nigun caught his fancy and sent a shiver running the length of his back, he would play it again, recording it on his little tape machine. The words to the nigunim came of themselves, from the sources, as he like to put it in a crude generalization. From prayer books and the prayers in his heart, and particularly from an unknown source that opened to him at the time. When he could no longer hold back the nigun, no longer chant it only to himself, he burst into the sleepy operations room. His face glowing, he sat beside me and said, "you must hear this divine melody that came to me."

I pleaded with him, "Be'eri, not now. It's too late. Besides, I'm in no state to hear it. Be'eri, I'm begging you, tomorrow morning, after duty hours. I promise I'll come to you." But he would not let go of me. "Now, right now. The wonderful bond between the words and the tune is particularly important just after its creation. That's when the action of the world is especially strong. It's a sin to miss it." And I, interrupted during a hot, erotic conversation with the duty operator in Safed, was forced to give in. I convinced the girl in heat at the other end that this was just a momentary disturbance; she shouldn't dare strand me on the line. "I'll get back to you in just a minute, stronger than before." Even before I put down the telephone, Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov was sitting beside me so close that the aromas he bore from the kitchen assailed my nostrils, winking at me as if to say, enough of these petty affairs.

After playing and singing with such passion for quite a few minutes that sweat drenched his forehead and the hairaround his skull cap, he suddenly calmed down and made an effort to make up for the tense listening session he had forced on me. "So, how was it?" he asked, but did not really wait for my answer. He said that he had ways of discerning when the melody was genuine and when it was counterfeit. The signs went beyond the shiver down his back. There were other clues. "Something is signaling me from here," and he thumped his chest above the heart. "And something is signaling me from here," and he slapped his perspired forehead. He put his guitar aside and said that the operations room was as filthy was the barns on a moshava. And there is no time like a quiet night to give it the cleaning it needs.

While I returned to my obscene whispering with the duty operator, Be'eri washed down the operations room. He cleaned the desks, the radios, everything within his reach. I marveled at the happy look on his face radiating a strange spirituality. It was as though he were performing not a degrading job but some supreme, spiritual ritual. He frequently drew from his pocket an essay by one of his rabbis and inserted it among the papers on the desks.

"Someone surely will find them; someone surely will read them. It is unthinkable that these shining words of wisdom should perish in vain in the operations room. He who is destined to find and read them will find and read them. Perhaps he will leave here stronger than when he entered." Another soldier captured for his music, another reader to study the luminous reflections of the ga'on.

The Saturday filming incident occurred after that. Overnight, Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov grew into a bold warrior for the sanctity of the Sabbath. He turned from an unknown kashrut inspector almost into a saint. His name won renown throughout Northern Command and even reached the office of the army's Chief Rabbi. He was not deterred by threats, or bewitched by the famous names of the director and his actors, or budged from his opinion by a brash reporter. He even refused to carry out orders direct from his commanding officer. The film company left their location disappointed. Serious complaints were lodged against him for interfering with their work, making threats, resorting to violence and the devil knows what else.

He sat across from me in the middle of the night, his eyes gleaming, his hands spanning the operations desk. His body tingled. "But understand," he said to me, "I enjoy movies as much as everyone else. And the actors really were terrific fellows. But why on Saturday of all times? After all, you can film any day, especially if you send people from Tel Aviv. You can coordinate everything; it's not a matter of life and death, just convenience. They want to spend the weekend in the Metulla hotels. For that you don't desecrate the Sabbath." I said that this time he had gone too far and would take the medicine he deserved. He could look forward to trial and a heavy sentence. What was he, all in all? An eccentric penitent. A miserable kashrut inspector for the Metulla police. Would anyone heed his words? Were I in his place, I would have shut my eyes and restrained myself. Or I would have spent all of Saturday in the little synagogue on the moshava and made sure I knew nothing.

Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov sprang from his seat screaming at me. "Have you gone crazy? Give in to those beasts? Perhaps you can explain to me how the officers' hatred for the Sabbath can be justified? Put up with the abominations they arrange on the moshava just for the Sabbath?" It was not for nothing that he had volunteered to be a kashrut inspector. He knew where sins spread from. He rose from his place enraged and began to dance on the floor of the operations room. "Abomination, Sabbath, movies, desecration’s, what spite, oh, what spite!" Slowly, slowly, the curses began to pour from his mouth in a sing-song rhythm in which one could make out fixed refrains he repeated again and again. His own nigun, too, one of thousands of Hasidic nigunim he had composed for himself, started to gush forth. Without realizing it, he transformed the flow of curses into a song of longing and soon began to clap along with his music. He called to me, "wait, don't move, I'm getting up to bring the guitar. I feel an earthquake of a shiver going down my back. This is a real nigun. You mustn't miss it."

This spectacle suddenly struck me as pathetic and ridiculous. Even the burning urmurs of the operator in Safed regarding the size of her bra and the color of her favorite panties did not dispel my gloom. When Be'eri returned, his slender hands clutching the guitar, I thought a few tears might need to be shed. I quickly broke off with the operator, sighing deeply into the receiver so she would get some idea of the passion her shameless come-ons had instilled in me. I promised to call her again soon.

An unnatural fire leapt from him. He gave no answer at all to my calming words. He circled the room, singing and playing. From time to time, he stopped and, after a brief pause, continued his barbed tirade against the desecrators of the Sabbath. He railed against lascivious Bohemianism, hardened his position against the spineless officers of the battalion. Eventually, he determined to win them with kindness. It was his plan to approach them with long, convoluted quotations from the rabbis' essays. He went very pale and became so weak that I rose from the operations desk to hold him up. I led him to his cramped pariah's room and made his bed, clearing it of his penitent's books. I put him to bed and took care that he would not smash the guitar in his rage. I covered him with his blankets and, to make sure that he didn't feel the cold, threw his jacket over them. I turned off the light and calmed him down. Then I saw him off to sleep like a frightened child.

III.

In the center of town, on the square outside the local youth center, exactly on the spot where I got out of the car, I saw Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov. I thought at first that I was mistaken. How many years had passed since we last met? Where were his black clothes? Where were the side locks and the gleaming skull cap he used to wear? He recognized me, too, immediately smiled and rose to meet me.

We shook hands and he said, "don't be surprised by any of this. And don't bury me with questions. A lot has happened of which you know nothing. It's not all clear even to me. I'll explain everything to you by and by." He wore a blue sports outfit and just a trace remained of his long beard. There was a moment of confusion between us. I was suddenly flooded with questions I wanted to ask him. Was it long since he had given up his new found religion? Did he still remember how he had gone down to Haifa in the middle of the war to enter the psychiatric ward of the hospital? Could he explain to me how he was able to drive those decrepit roads without an accident? How he returned the car without so much as a nick? And what had become of him in the years since the war? How did he turn up in this forsaken town?

Suddenly, I laughed and reached towards the pocket of his sports shirt. Were his pockets, I asked, still stuffed with the articles of Rabbi Kook? Was it still his way to treat those he spoke with as though he were giving candy to a child? No, not for a long time, he parried my question. He had abandoned those offensive practices as soon as he began seriously studying in Jerusalem. So far as he was concerned, every one was entitled to his own beliefs. He would no longer pry into another's soul. The sad experience of his past, the years when he did not know his own soul and wandered from yeshiva to yeshiva, was enough for him. He was unfit for saving souls. That time left him bad memories. But everything was fine now. I could see that he was his old self in every way. He was like a man who had fully regained his health after an illness of which nothing remained except some lingering marks. He felt himself completely healthy, just as he had been in his time in the fish ponds on the kibbutz.

We went down to the basketball court below the reccenter and Be'eri Ben-Ya'akov told me how he had come back to the passion of his childhood - basketball. People had suggested that he coach the city's youth teams. He eagerly accepted. What could be nicer for a bachelor like him? It was half an hour from Jerusalem and his studies. His life was not hard at all. The practices were easy for him, not exhausting like other jobs. Talking with his charges invigorated him. He felt he could help them to escape the yawning depths into which he had fallen and floundered a good many years until he had found his way out. It sometimes seemed to him that there was no pitfall on his life's path into which he had not stumbled. No one had stood by him. No one had extended a hand to get him back on his feet. Even his pious comrades who had so rejoiced over him in the beginning had despaired of him as time passed, for he remained unstable, with ceaseless questions, and doubts that continued to torment him, and a soul that found no peace.

We went on the court and he demonstrated some of his drills. "It's a pity the kids aren't here," he said. "With them, I could put on an exhibition game in your honor." I saw how much better he looked and how the glow in his face, which I last had seen before he fell victim to the disillusions of the repentant sinner, finally had returned. "Basketball and a guitar," I said. "Yes," he said, "let's talk some more about sport and music. Those are the true foundations of my life. Sport for the body and of the body, the splendid product of the material world. And music for the soul, the composer's soul that dwells within each of us." For a moment, I thought his words would sweep him away, he would forget everything and call to me, "hear how beautifully the words fit the melody." I thought he would break out into a Hasidic nigun he had just composed and smother me with feverish ecstasy, as he had years before until I could bear it no longer and swore at him. A dullness, accompanied by an inexplicable anger, had settled over me then, followed by regret and the awful feeling that I had over-reacted. When I cooled off, I had asked his forgiveness although I had not done anything wrong.

"Where do the words come from, Be'eri? Where do you get the words now for the nigunim?" "No problem," he replied. "They simply come of themselves, from the town, the group of kids I coach, the daily trips to Jerusalem. You are awash in words everywhere. You just need to choose and gather them for the nigunim."

We sat on the court's fence and I reminded him of a forgotten chapter of his life before the change. How he had been glued to the little transistor day and night. How he had enraged the men with those night forays. The time when he had refused to shut off the radio. How he had loved the army troupe songs. An addiction like his I had never seen before. He would fall asleep at night with the music fused to his ears. Be'eri suddenly became angry. "Don't remind me of that time. And please do not remind me of those men. Savage beasts. Like everywhere else, like on the kibbutz, like everywhere in the world. Petty thieves and grubby bandits." In his anger, I heard a bit of what he had yearned to tell them during the dark days of the war. At the time, he had imposed certain restrictions on himself and would not be induced to react, even once, to their provocations. That lasted until, by order of the battalion physician, he went down to the psychiatric ward in Haifa, both to have his case diagnosed there and to relieve the battalion of his dead weight.

We returned to the rec center and he apologized for not inviting me to his small apartment. "There is nothing at all there and you would be amazed at how much it resembles the little room I left on the kibbutz." But I was not amazed, for I remembered how little he looked after himself even when we were closer, especially in those searing days when he first fell under the spell of repentance. He had filled his days with endless efforts to convert the soldiers of the battalion to his faith.

Be'eri told me about his studies in Jerusalem, his dazzling encounter with the teaching of the Rambam. He had not understood until the end that the path of moderation was the correct way, the only way for his life. Yes, he could put himself in my place and mock his previous life as I had. I should not think that he was blind to the absurd side of it. No, he saw his life as it was. On the contrary, today, with the breadth of viewpoints he had gained, he could analyze exactly where he had erred in life. But that was not the main thing. What was important was that he had overcome his mistakes, and by his own strength. No one stood at his side, telling him whether he had gone right. Not his father, not his mother, no one from the kibbutz. He himself had grasped the essentials of the Rambam's teaching. The curiosity kindled in him was more powerful than the holy thoughts of Rabbi Kook and his followers. He had discovered Rambam's teaching for himself. He questioned his companions only about sentences he did not understand or words he found difficult to comprehend. They warned him not to pursue this course, but he was not intimidated. On his own, he came to realize that he was better off away from the cloistered fellowship of the yeshiva. On his own, he registered for classes at the university. And on his own, he found a master in the Rambam's secrets and rose early for lectures to which he gave his all.

This was his life of late. Alone, he acted by and for himself, slowly but surely. When some months had passed, he found himself changing his dress. He returned to his old clothing and his former habits. Then he fell into financial difficulties. The yeshiva suspended his meager stipend and evicted him from his room. Still, he steeled himself, mind and body. He felt his strength of old reviving ever so slowly. Even his athletic abilities came back, nearly to the level of his wild days on the kibbutz when he had pounded the basketball court from morning to night.

Eventually, he worked up the courage to sever all his ties with them. He left them for a new path of his own. It was precisely then that a friend told him that the town was looking for a youth league basketball coach. He presented himself in the town and was enthusiastically received. I could see for myself how he was rebuilding his life. He bore no grief for what he had lost, only for the precious time squandered on the court at the yeshiva in Jerusalem. Weary from the penetrating, light-filled words of Rabbi Kook, he had gone to a court so strewn with stones that he could not even execute the steps of the game.

We climbed up to the parking lot. Before we parted, I thought of the consequences of his shell shock, and of the operator cooing hot lust and desire into my ears while Be'eri sat beside me, singing and playing holy Hasidic nigunim. I was afraid he would suddenly jostle me on the shoulder, call me by the pet name he had thought up years before, thrust a round stone beneath my feet and shout in my ears, "smile, old timer, smile. I've seen bigger slobs than you. Let them see that you once had a wild streak."

© Elisha Porat


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