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Elisha Porat Poem (Watermelons)


Young Ram in Jerusalem
Tanslated from the Hebrew by Zehava Lerech

They met through good friends. He agreed to be called single for the meeting. And she really was single. They met for the first time in the Jewish Studies Reading Hall in the National Library. On the old campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem it felt by now that summer was over. The brief autumn had already left clear marks on the row of Platanus trees and the cotoneaster shrubs in the gardens.

He rose and introduced himself to her as Shaya Ben-Yosef, a poet and artist, unattached and free for a romantic adventure. He was immersed in a state of long-term shock following the Yom Kippur War, and had not managed to return to his former routine life as a kibbutz farmer. And she introduced herself to him as Meira Hecht, a researcher with her future before her. She was a mature unmarried, in her mid-thirties, a scholarly lecturer who dedicated her life to research in the Department of Ancient Semitic Languages. He had gone up to Jerusalem to fill the voids that spread through his soul after the battles. You could definitely say that he was immersed in a special kind of intoxication, overflowing with memories of the war that came to him with increasing strength, an intoxication the more exhausting because of his enormous love for Jerusalem, an illness he had caught when still in his youth. Since the war his poems were printed in newspaper literary supplements. And not long ago his first book was published. In the book he gathered direct and moving poems that he brought back from the battlefields. Poems hewn from the sinister basalt, antagonistic like it, hard like it, and wounding like it with its honed points.

She was a journeying lecturer because since she finished her studies she had not found a permanent institution to settle in. And in self-irony added that she hoped her odd name would not block her way to the Israeli Academy of Sciences. Recently she taught at Jerusalem, while completing her big research work for which she had already been given her degree with excellence. But a permanent position was hard for her to get. To her taste, the Department was rigid and too conservative. Some scholars of the old school were entrenched there. And the veteran scholars did not look favorably on a woman intruding into their Department. That is why she traveled for years on the roads, teaching in remote towns and out of the way institutions with much running around in taxi stations, riding afar in buses and stalking tirelessly after permanency.

The good friends who set up their meeting were modest and brilliant as well. And they themselves had just now completed fundamental research on the ideas of the founders of the Labor Movement in the Land of Israel. They studied and revealed anew the teachings of forgotten Jewish philosophers from Germany. The sayings and essays of A.D. Gordon, Rabbi Kook and Buber the favorite, flew about in their conversation, feathery and familiar just like prophesies fulfilled. And generous quotes from forgotten letters of Brenner and his generation adorned their meetings in the cafeteria. The great names they tossed off nonchalantly imparted to their conversation wit and sparkle. The circle of these friends belonged to an inner group very prominent in a closed and condescending manner that he noticed immediately the first time he joined their permanent table in the Library cafeteria. They drank little, scrimped on food and stinted on every cent but they did not stint on compliments and praise for Professor Gershom Shalom, who most of them considered themselves his favorite students. Shaya sat and listened to the sparks flying aloft from the table and had not an iota of his own to add to their words since he barely recognized the great names they were talking about. And a great curiosity awoke within him to learn about the man and his teachings and to understand why these profound and brilliant people revered him. Among themselves they called him by the name many knew him by, "Sholem", like his close friends from home. And he felt the open signs of adulation for the great teacher and spiritual loyalty that was hard for him to accept.

In those days, he lived with a feeling, secret but growing, that he was on the brink of his breakthrough. From a local and unknown artist he would turn into an artist recognized throughout the country. He examined hundreds of poems from the war that were printed like fresh grass after the rain. In every newspaper, every weekly, and every journal. And he noted to himself that only a few reached the level of excellence and perfection that his poems did. Reading the poems you could discern at first glance who fakes and who sentimentalizes. Who blames and who wails. There were also young poets who howled that they had been betrayed, left alone on the deserted battlefields. But fine poems of truth like his were scarcely printed. Precise and right, free of sentimental drivel and painful in their directness.

He was not conceited, but saw himself as developing into a free artist. He would create true art and earn a living by it. He would write books that many will buy. And he will live with honor and a measure of independence and much satisfaction. His aim was to free himself from old ties that chained him to his village. He wanted to break away, to utilize the propulsion of the horrors of the war and take off. And he did not want any commitment. On the contrary, after the war and disappointment, shock of loss and memory of friends, he felt that he deserved a superior sort of personal freedom. A poet's pride secretly sprouted within him, and so he did not hide anything from Meira. And in pride he told her that he was married and had two children in his home in the country. To himself, that's how he liked to call his kibbutz.

Meira Hecht asked him with delicacy about his relations with his wife and he answered that he indeed had loved her since his youth, they had matured together into life, and until the war all had gone well with them. "But there was a war, Meira, an earthquake that maybe here in Jerusalem was not felt, but after it everything changed." He too was shaken violently until he became sick even of the little he had before. She thought that one day he would regret it and he immediately agreed with her, but he asked her for time. "Give me", he mimicked with irony a famous expression of the late Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, "Give me credit".

The day after their meeting he went down to Tel Aviv and continued on to Jaffa. He rushed to an interview set up for him by an editor of the literary program on IDF Radio, who wanted to question the raging poet about his new book. Transparent, heart-clenching October was in the air, just like two years ago on the fire-stricken basalt rocks. Meira's voice rang in his ears. Despite the ever-present din in the cafeteria he noticed her low, pleasant voice that rose from deep within her. The natural voice of a radio announcer, he thought while driving. And he wondered how their relationship would evolve.

Yes, he was available and thirsty for an affair. And she was hungry for a man. One meeting and another meeting, and they got used to looking for each other in the Library cafeteria. They always chose the same corner, under the illuminated north window, where the legs of those descending the stairs kept it shadowed. They met in the open student restaurant as well and even in the large restaurant in the Administration Building. She was a veteran resident of the campus and he accepted her guidance willingly. She knew the shortcut paths and the various discounts given to students. She also ate little and frugally but he had not yet gotten over his farmer's appetite. And he devoured like in the army, gluttonously and without any reckoning. He felt that he was losing his fine build and starting to get fat again. During the lengthy war he lost a lot of his weight, and now too in secret he awaited the sudden outbreak of some tiny war so he could again balance his measurements. He felt how within a few weeks he had turned into a true student, addicted to sitting in the library, gave up exercise, forgot about his walks in the gardens and evaded walking up stairs. And he prayed in his heart that he would not grow a gigantic butt like those of the black-coated Yeshiva students who flood the northern streets of the city.

He was granted a modest scholarship, and lived in a narrow, crowded student dormitory not far from the campus below Museum Hill. Day and day and night he had to hear the Oriental song "A Gentle Hand" as sung by the rough voice of a suffering painter called Gershuni, who he read about in a Sabbath newspaper supplement. The song became so familiar and so irritating, singing by itself, flowing and bursting from him at all hours of the day. Gershuni's aggravating and painful version would not let him be. Without his willing it, the melody welled out from him. At night in his room when he read until late, and on the stuffy bus on his long rides home on weekends. Its wild melody had everything in it: chanting of the muezzin, ringing of the church bells, and melodies of the Sephardi cantors in Jerusalem. And he became addicted to the melody, when it obliterated the sights of war that pursued him.

His room was small and crammed with a coffee table, bed, clothes closet and book shelves. The old-fashioned toilet rumbled in a corner, and the nice building custodian answered his pleas and set up a partition for it. If he hadn't, he could not have slept during the short nights. Would he have to bring Meira here? Here she would take off her clothes? And above the narrow basin wash her body? A shame, truly a shame, he thought. On the other hand, if we're thinking about intimacy, why, the narrow room even has certain advantages, he smiled to himself. Meira told him about her small apartment in the new neighborhood in the south of the city. All around the bulldozers bit into the hills, thundering dust-clouds. And Jerusalem, the expanding city, sent extensions of stone toward Mount Gilo and Bethlehem Road. From her apartment windows the giant cranes could be seen rotating by day, and red warning lights flickered atop them at night. He knew that she would invite him to her apartment one day, and wondered what tricks he would need and how he would manage his chase after her naked body amongst the piles of books and masses of papers filling every free space between the furniture. Yes, he sighed, the friends were right about something. He was hungry for a woman and she was thirsty for love.

In those very days he was unwillingly involved in a brief but intense erotic affair with a hot-tempered reviser he met in a Jerusalem publishing house where he spent a few hours now and then editing a new story of his. The editor liked it, a gloomy, pessimistic war story that he brought back from the Golan Heights battlefront. The love affair between him and the reviser broke out so suddenly that it embarrassed him. He felt her advances and was not oblivious to the tokens of desire surrounding him, but he did not imagine that things would go so fast. Too many years had he been cooped up in his little village. Too many years had he accepted and obeyed the strict and out-dated customary morals. If he really aspired to be a true free artist, if he meant to break through the stifling provincial block, he must concede that his way will pass through the beds of desiring and liberated Jerusalem women.

For a few weeks his ears rang with the words of the reviser, whispered to his nape during a quickie in her apartment. "Don't you dare be lured to sleep with my editor, that notorious man-eater. Even if she showers you with temptations, as she knows so well how. "

And while Gershuni rasps and goes on singing with a throatful of suffering "Oh, a gentle hand had she, no man dared touch it", he was amazed. Did we have here on her part an actual attempt at pimping? Could it be that one directs and one inspects? Could it be that one tests and the other confirms? Could it be that the reviser snares new men for her editor? Country bumpkins like him, introverted but virile, that the war had transported to Jerusalem? Shaya was confused, surrounded by odd relationships he was not accustomed to, and he as usual was filled with suspicion like a clumsy peasant.

One evening Meira invited him to her apartment to deepen their acquaintance. Books really did fill the whole modest apartment. Her father had installed the nice shelves for her, and in general it was he who helped her purchase the apartment and get it set up. Without him she would be totally lost. "Those are matters for men. And especially somebody like me, who doesn't even know how to sew a button," she told him as if to make excuse. She did not mention her mother much that evening. And when she did, you could hear in her voice a veiled accusation, as if her mother was to blame for her long spinsterhood and for the apartment overloaded with books instead of baby diapers, and for her rigidity in contacts with friends.

She told him she had been a successful officer in the army and as well as a member in a Pioneer Fighting Unit that settled in Galilee. For a little while she even used to visit the young kibbutz on Sabbaths, but then a girlfriend proposed that she join her on a trip overseas. And in London, in one of the huge libraries, her scientific calling was revealed to her. "How old was I then? A youngster after her army service, and she would tell him one day how the revelation came to her." She understood that what had been revealed to her in London was much more profound than just a scientific vocation. It was a covert promise, inward, almost religious. All that is in her today was revealed to her in a vision she had in London. She became silent and gave him no more hints. And then began to sprout his suspicion that she was a member of some closed circle of believers. All evening she flaunted before him the ambiguous sayings of Gershom Shalom, but he suspected here some ritual worship of another kind. Some adulation of a spiritual teacher, accompanied by strict secrecy and hidden organization. In his few days in Jerusalem he already heard about mysterious cliques proliferating there after the shock of the Yom Kippur War, about esoteric rites and about the enigmatic figure of the wrathful teacher.

When she got up to escort him to the bus station, he was amazed to discover during his last thumbing through the periodicals strewn about, that she too had published poems years ago. And they were even printed in one of the last editions of the veteran poetry journal "Rainbow" before it closed down.

She was stirred by the dry, businesslike letter of encouragement then sent to her by the exacting editor Aharon Amir. And he recalled how the same Aharon Amir had also encouraged him to print his harsh poems from after the war. Under his real name and with his true signature he stood openly behind the wonderful elegies he wrote. And he then understood by himself that there was no more need to hide behind pseudonyms. Because what he saw and what he heard and what he vowed not to forget, there in that bad, bitter country, that poison and hate- spewing country, had ripened his poems overnight. And from now one he had nothing more to look for among the low grasses. He must raise his head erect, sharpen his eyes that until now did not betray him, and to take off, as high and as far as the power of his imagination would bear him and as much as his search for truth and hatred of the false would pursue him: to rise to where he was destined and moreover, to join the immortal group of sad-visages mourners of wars: remarkable mourners who did not allow one false note to penetrate their poems. "But what am I pattering about to you?" he broke off his sermon. Without at all being aware of it, he found himself quoting the hollow phrases he had babbled the day before into the ears of the Army Radio interviewer until the fellow, who wasn't stupid and had himself seen some war scenes, didn't hold back and asked, "What's with you? Has your battle shock messed you up altogether? The war's over two years already, Mr. Poet!"


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