Haunted by God
By Avshalom Kaveh
Translated from Hebrew by Stephen Katz
Gevalt! Who’d have believed that just as we left home after so much work, especially on the territorial heights, and even after we plunged into the depths of detail and gathered more supplies than had ever been gathered before, under our beds of course, and even carried carbide in our bags—for smoke bombs and the like—as we made our way through familiar places, we should begin, my father and I, to argue like little children.
Unbelievable! The mind rebels. It was early morning. I remember it well because my role in our unit was to observe the morning hours, to note in the travel log each aspect of that sunny gentleman. Father was suspicious of morning’s benevolence and asked that I keep a close watch over it and note any irregularity. “Only what’s relevant to the morning, and nothing beyond that,” he shouted, “and don’t work yourself into everything, not even into the log. My eyes aren’t so sharp, and I don’t feel like stumbling into you any more than I have to.” That’s what my commanding officer said when he was in good spirits.
It was early September. We wanted to return before the coming of winter. I left the house first. Father asked if the morning was smiling at us. “Yes, sure,” I said, reluctant to get into specifics and scrutinize tiresome details, such as that in the sky’s western extremities—that’s how he taught me: extremities—I noticed the gathering of clouds of diverse shapes, the ones I used to call “cloudies.” Should I tell him about the cloudies or keep my mouth shut? I decided to keep my own counsel and not mention the cloudies and just make obvious remarks like, for example, that on the right side of the skies—don’t say heavens—the clouds that gathered looked like our family’s chansonnier, Charles Aznavour. Am I to blame that’s what they looked like up there? Behind the Aznavours, other skirt-like clouds gathered, dripping with the kind of femininity that frequented our house: my mother the seamstress’ clients. She was in bed when we left.
I reported all this to Father who was already bent beneath the sack of rags on his back as he made his way to the two donkeys. From beneath the spot that should have been devoted to a perfect moustache, but which wasn’t, he muttered: “You and your foolishness.” Shut up, I said to myself, there’s no point in arguing . The road to Mesopotamia is long and from there to acceptance at Gushpanka it’s even longer, so I knew we’d find plenty of time to argue about all these foolish things. Now, forget it. That’s what I said to myself because I was fully prepared, groomed like the curly hairs on a rich man’s ass. Not only that, I was armed with a side-pouch and a kitbag filled with a myriad of ointments and pills, especially pills for my commanding officer’s skin disease. In short, a first-aid kit next to a bag of brains, as they used to say back then, in those days, days whose death we bear within us wherever we turn. But no one will see in our faces even a semblance of sorrow because we have learned to conceal everything, accursed as we are. There were also reserve eyeglasses, enough clothes for several days, and binoculars. Father was insistent about taking a sack. Why a sack? Just because. It was an old madness of his. Bundled inside were walking clothes, a dress uniform, and the royal raiment. What an outfit! He didn’t let me touch it. He said that only a chosen few, most of whom were not yet born, deserved to stand in the company of those robes. “Stand on the side and look from there. Do not approach, you cinnamon speck!” That’s what he yelled at me as we packed up the whole caboodle.
That was all in the top of the sack. In the double-bottom he stuffed his memoirs replete with notations and second-hand reminiscences, the kind that no longer fade in the wash. Instead they fall upon you from the start, especially those of his predecessors in this role, the role of the true-blue, gluey Jew, the Jew who breathes blame, who blames blame, the one who sticks to you and gives you no rest, not even in your sleep. For years he gathered these memories. For years? Centuries. I saw how he hoarded them, laying them down, one upon the other. But when I offered one of mine he sniffed at it and said, “Not moldy enough. Not enough Houdini-Jewdiny.” He threw away my one little memory. He didn’t want to put it down, not even for safekeeping, not even after I broke down in tears, saying: “Just until a better memory comes along.” “In this matter, I don’t trust anyone. You are of a different time. Even if you turn somersaults in the skies, you won’t have a Jewish memory, at least not like mine.” Bastard. Son of a bitch. But maybe this is where his strength lay. Not everyone can be a commander, especially over such a mighty force.
I went crazy from anxiety and had to keep telling myself there’s no need now to argue with operational command. He is my superior. I will obey orders because the main thing is to get under way. The main thing is to reassemble the visions so they fit reality. First of all, to Ur of the Chaldees. There we are to unpack the double-bottom and return the memories to their origins. Afterward back to Haran. There he’ll receive treatment after taking one more peek into his medical bag to learn how to help the former Jewish-Polish cavalryman, who felt himself bound not only to his psychotic ancestors and not only to the slivers of history which he could never understand because they haunted him so, but also to Mount Moriah. They shouldn’t tell stories about rams and angels, and from there go on to all the gullies and valleys where one can hear the everlasting cry of dead children haunted by God, His innocent and eternal victims. How is it possible to endure this never-ending hit parade?
So then we were packed up in tip-top shape. Good. After two years’ preparation, with all the irritating jokes made by my friends with their crude thumbs, and, of course, the self-criticism, we were ready. It was a bit different from the journey to Nova Scotia which we took three years ago. That is, we were about to go but changed our minds at the last minute after distributing pronouncements to all who might treasure our memory. They cast them into the trash and uttered: “Them and their threats.”
The first ten yards were outstanding. Father was happy. Finally, the great dream was about to be realized. He was to attain his primary goal: to cure the diseases that had beset him day and night. And I would stand facing the start, the whitish origin, the primal horizon. I’d be able to sense the Beginning. Not immediately. No. First we’d have to sit beside the two donkeys, pull out our mushy sandwiches, breathe deeply, and be forced to remember. How much more can one take, yearning for the eternal present, the near-and-far? Once I ran in the fields, alone or accompanied by my gang, or hike to the sea, or to those round hills like earth’s honeyed breasts. The hills crumbled in my hands if I even tried to stroke them; I thought they were the crucible of the horizon. They drove me crazy: one horizon after another and another, for how long? Schlanger, my teacher and mentor, suggested I go to Gushpanka, where the primal horizon lay. For after encountering it, everything would find its place.
But my horizon was completely marginal compared to that of Father, driven to madness by his illnesses. So his council of friends—artisans, emergency clergy, passers-by and paperboys—decided that he should leave for Mesopotamia because of its healing waters and the possibility of reviving his depleted “atmosphere.” For heaven’s sake don’t say “immune system.” If I say “atmosphere,” then I know what I am talking about, for a change, because layers of this absurd existence were stripped from him, as from all of us, a line of defense, this atmosphere, and each peeling away was accompanied by stones and insults. At first these were small blemishes, tweezer scars, but afterward it’s was a catastrophe, like the cratered face of the moon. So let’s not say it’s the immune system. It’s gone far beyond that. Very far. That’s what I learned from the many things I hoarded under the bed, the collection of one kid in a nameless neighborhood who makes his way home, a walk of a quarter of an hour from the bus stop that turns into one long, long, long brush stroke.
Then we stood by the contours of the road. It wasn’t there yet, the road. It will take years until it’s paved. To be sure, there was an outline. The neighborhood politicians said that soon we would have a road of our own. I was staring at the road’s profile, a deep gash in the earth’s scarred face and then my commanding officer and I began to argue like little children. Shameful. We argue whether to continue, and I did not use the word “advance,” because that is what my esteemed commander in the Israel Defense Forces, Gad Manela, once yelled at me: “When will you advance with the rest of the force, idiot?”
The argument was whether to use the main highway, lying south of us in a permanent midday languor bereft of ambition, or the path winding its way through the citrus groves to our north. A very serious dispute. One that decided, in fact, the fate of the journey for the time being, because it was very likely that tomorrow we would again go on our way. We had every reason to believe that. We had forgotten nothing. Oh, I forgot, Father died. How could I forget that? He always does the right thing at the wrong time. Anyhow, then, a long time ago, he wanted to reach the main highway and gather us and our things and board a bus. Another kind of in-gathering of exiles. The distance between the bus stop and the Kfar-Sava intersection where the two donkeys were waiting for us was not especially great, several versts, and even a working man could afford the cost of the ride, the shpizen, as they say in Yiddish. But we didn’t have a penny to our names, not a farthing, not a zuz, not an archaic shekel, nor an Italian isar mentioned in that book, the Mishnah, for it is written: “Run to the Mishnah and not to the Kfar-Sava intersection, dummy.” Nothing. Not even a single sestertius.
We spent all our funds on that trip to Tel Aviv, to the Akadian embassy, until we found—yah-rabbak!—that of all things, it stood by “Ohel Shem,” the Tent of Shem. Fortunately, an actor passed by and pointed out the embassy. At the entrance they renewed our visas. We renew them once every thousand years. Not only did they not take any money, but they even gave us a brochure touting all the sites. But we wanted information about their medicinal waters and ziggurats, and of course whether any tickets remained for the Folies Bergère. Then they said in Ladino: “Good, so head this way and that and then you’ll come to the Akkadian cultural consul.” Surprisingly, the consul knew Father. It was Getzel, Rabbi Tchvock’s son, who studied together with him in a heder in Galicia, the setting of the lachrymose history of the Jews.
And even if we were to board the bus, the passengers would say: “What? Off again? Look at them, they’re never satisfied. A while ago they were in Nova Scotia and now they’re headed east. A party every day, a celebration of travel, what with all their packs and sacks. Hey, if you’re headed for Cyprus, then would you mind bringing us an electric kettle or an ironing board? You can do that, right?”
And that would just be for starters. Because as soon as the bus were to pull away, the driver would certainly demand his shpizen, and then my commanding officer would resort to delaying tactics, maybe even bank on the driver’s forgetfulness and say: “We’ll just put down our packs and pass along the coins to you.” Then we would push into the crowd and someone would yell: “Dahilaq! Come on, stop stomping my toes.” Then all the riders would start laughing and answer for us: “So where did you want them to stomp, on your brains?” Then the driver would get irritated and shout: “Mr. Hope, you with your tricks again?” And I would holler back: “They stomped on his foot!” But the guy whose toes were crushed would scream: “Whaddaya mean, he stomped on my…” And then the driver would stop his machine, open the rear door and call out from the depths of his heart: “Get off my bus already, wise guy! Mess around with someone else, yallah, yallah!” Then, with the whole world staring at us, I would be ashamed as never before, terribly ashamed, and the driver would then drop us off in mid-shame, in the middle of nowhere. But I would suddenly be proud of my commander because nothing bothers him. And he would also explain to the passersby, citizens of the wilderness, that it’s not our fault, because we’ve always been a little tra-la-la-loonie.
What good can come from those haunted by God, that heavenly Cossack, abounding in anger and abounding in kindness? Worse than any division commander who arrives for a surprise inspection in the middle of the night, leaving his vehicle far off, making his way on foot over the regular road and stepping, the unlucky jerk, on the shit left there by guards who, out of fear, don’t walk the distance to the latrines, but squat close to the guard post. So he gets angry and wakes the whole squad-platoon-company-whatever and screams that we’re an embarrassment to the Nation of Israel and if we continue to shit by the gate we’ll never let our little enemies have it the way they deserve. For that’s what the Holy One Blessed Be He yelled at Moses our Teacher, “Wherever I step, it’s shit.”
I thought we should make our way to the frontier of the neighborhood, a wasteland of sorts, and wait there for a ride. “What kind of ride do you have in your head, Cartilage? Have you lost it completely?” And I yell back that if a vehicle were to pass by it would be at the neighborhood’s frontier, because there is no better and more mysterious place in the whole world. And if an orchard is a street’s finale, then a neighborhood frontier is sort of a cadenza, a dreamy flourish. The high commander glares at me and suddenly quotes that guy Rilke, something about “beauty being nothing but the beginning of terror.” Who even asked him? Then he starts hollering again, telling me that not even an idiot passes by the frontier except sometimes a small wagon, a miniature wagon harnessed to a donkey that resembles a frog more than the safari vehicles that entered and left Lebanon. Sorry that I’m jumping ahead, but there is a connection in my mind between the neighborhood’s frontier and Lebanon, the land of cedars.
So there we were standing and arguing when mother came out, barefoot, but of course her feet were on the floor rag, almost dancing on its weave, still trying to soak up the remainder of the mop water. I laughed at the amusing sight of her, which enraged my commanding officer. Now it was the neighbors’ turn to get into the act. They screamed: “Quiet, you scoundrels, let us sleep for another five minutes.” Father, my almighty father, replied: “So who asked you to scream in the morning?” They had no answer to that foolishness. Had they known that the whole argument was between us, they would have cursed more energetically and with greater vulgarity. When Mother saw us in our muddled condition she called out: “Yallah!, children, get into the house and argue inside, you don’t need to spill your guts before the whole world.”
We debated whether to retreat now and wait for better days. Now, after the fact, I’ve changed my mind and think we should have chosen the main road, meaning the highway, instead of waiting for a vehicle to pass by the neighborhood’s frontier. Who would have appeared before us? Elijah the Prophet, of blessed memory, who knows how to slaughter false prophets? Who, in fact, is not a false prophet? And who is it that decides who is a true or a false prophet? The Bible teacher, who after two years of intensive college study—most of which she wasted on those little pricks from the biology faculty—that’s who. Afterwards, the Bible teachers quote all their sources as if God Himself shoved the sources into them, up their creampuffs, or straight into their salaries. What a joke! So then they get to decide who here is true and who false? But he was right, the old man who stuck it into Mother and screwed me too by bringing me to this calamity, to this seismic existence. He wasn’t prepared, rightfully, to be my first lieutenant on the road to Gushpanka. So, with the conclusion of the Mesopotamian tour, I was to proceed on my own. “I will wait for you at the city gate, together with all the loafers and prophets of that land, until you return.” That’s what he told me before we signed the agreement. I checked everyletter of the contract, like kicking a car’s tires, because I did not want any blow-outs. Who knows? Had we argued in the middle of the journey, I would have whipped out the agreement and he would have said: “If I signed, then I signed.”
That’s how we found ourselves retreating home in shame. Mother already completed the rag dance and the floor was wetter than before she began her performance. Even Devorah Bertonow, despite all her travels round the world, never saw such fluid choreography. Then our mother, who Father fucked and in so doing screwed me too, yelled that we were making a mess. It was still morning, a lovely morning as we sat down together at the coarse table. “So, my heroes, do you want to drink something?” she asked. But we did not answer because we were analyzing the reasons for our retreat, our failure, our defeat, and decided to draw the right conclusions, a practice that was not yet in style at the time.
I think that it was a trick by Alter, his brother, to drive a wedge between us and to stir things up. Yet there remains some doubt. Perhaps because Alter willingly agreed that we could take his two donkeys on condition that we pick them up at the Kfar-Sava intersection and not at his house, so that no one should say that he had a hand, or even a foot, in this madness. You may think: what’s the big deal? A journey to Mesopotamia and then on to Gushpanka. Get on with it. One and done. Psha’kref—dog’s blood! Like those who licked up Jezebel’s blood. I can’t get that picture out of my head. Imagine: the granddaughter of Sisera and his wife standing for hours by the window overlooking the garden and blindly yelling, “Jezebel!” But there was no voice nor any that answered. Uncle Alter informed me after I made my donkey request, and after thirty seconds of deep thought, that he had decided to provide us with the two animals, which would be waiting for us tied to the trunk of a dead ficus tree: “If by nine o’clock you’re not there, I’ll take them back.” He would stand two hundred meters away because he refused to exchange even a glance with Father, all because of a quarrel that existed between the brothers on account of some typically Jewish matter.
And while the two of us were analyzing the cause of our failure, Father up and declared that he was headed for the employment office. What are you running off to? Is anyone waiting for you there? Looking for a payday? And Mother, who was already standing and was about to leave to attend to her business, said: “It’s not so terrible, there is always tomorrow,” meaning today, which had already been tomorrow, and now conducted itself like the eighth day of the week.
My father, who immigrated to Palestine in the middle of the thirties of the last century, turned in the intervening years from a distinguished and daring pioneer into a conjecture, a false rumor, a shameful statement on life, a sooty pile of nerves. His Judeo-Polish body could not bear the weight of the nation’s historical mission, which had been heaped upon him by fate and the Jewish Agency. His soul was torn to pieces by the certainty and finality that raged about him. He could not bear the furious demands of the heavy soil, the shacks surrendering to the fever of concrete, the weighty legs of wooden tables and the bloody umbilical cords of newspaper headlines. He worked at day labor while his comrades from the immigrant ranks were promoted to a host of frighteningly absurd institutions, from which they brought home half a kilo more of rations and had real paper napkins gracing their tables.
Mother objected vigorously to our journeys. At the time, three years ago, it was she who stood in the gap, that is, square in the doorway, and forbade us to take ourselves off to Nova Scotia, and all because I did not have snow goggles. “Hope,” she yelled at my father, “if you want to go, go! Cartilage is not leaving here without snow goggles.” As for Mesopotamia, she said it was a complete waste of time. We wouldn’t find relief for Father’s pathetic existence, and the whole issue of his “atmosphere” and its reconstitution is its own waste of time. The only thing that can help him, if anything, is to fully accept his inner sorrow, and to abandon those pointed accusations, made by that finger always turned inward, inward toward the parking lot of sighs and troubles. And as for the ensuing voyage to Gushpanka, she said that all I had to do was stand on my tiptoes and whatever I see from that vantage will be Gushpanka, and all the rest is doomed to failure. Therefore, she was not dismayed at all that we began to argue as we left the house. And when the sun resembled a gangrenous leg, it was her turn to leave home. And I knew that my Uncle Alter, that shmegegge, that jerk, would at that hour be reclaiming our two locomotives, that is, the two donkeys.
I sat with my head in my hands which at times were like mirrors that transported me to other places. My thoughts led to the mistress of the thread and thimble, my mother, quite a gifted seamstress. Only a bureaucratic error had prevented her from settling in the great land of America, home of Doris Day, Old Shatterhand of the Wild West, and the beloved Marx Brothers, who left their eldest brother, Karl, behind, in a stuffy London library. She, the mistress of the thimble, came from Poland, like the rest of us, but from a Poland unlike that of my father. Hers was full of cherries, blueberries, matrons who held umbrellas with marble tips, and tolerable Gentiles. His was dark, a patchwork of idiot Hasidim, frightening legends, and horsemen bearing severe expressions, the progeny of foreign nations who yield no quarter.
Due to a variety of factors, which cannot be considered here, a short path of existential cooperation was paved connecting my father and mother, a path having a few by-ways of comfort, but mostly consisting of screaming, blaming, and trading insults. At their height, my father would become a fist of ridiculous communist proclamations. Then she would seem to disappear, scattering and withdrawing into her inner storehouse with the speed of the sun dropping into the sea. After a round of bitter arguments she would either threaten to make her way to her sister in Haifa, who lived in Kiryat Hayim, or to the sea, and in the coming elections she’d vote for the Progressive party and not for one of the workers’ parties that Father favored, naïve as he was. And when she was not at home, because she had run away to her friends, he would talk to the trees and stones as if they were travel agents, or stay indoors and declare that it was high time to complete preparations for the impending exodus to Mesopotamia.
By then the sun stood at its zenith, so we had plenty of time on our hands. I considered taking the bicycle and setting a course for Tel Aviv to consult my brother, Yonah, who was a number of years older. The years separated us, but so too did a few reservoirs of gray matter, all of which were to his credit. Also, he was a counselor par excellence in the pioneer youthmovement, and Father always said that he was occupied, occupied to the rafters with ideological implementation, the secular response to divine intervention. At the time, the country operated under a grand delusion that ideological implementation would reach such a level that it would be relatively easy to give The Name, G-dash-D, Elokim, or however they call Him up there, a great big smackdown to settle the score for all the troubles He brought upon His victims, the Jews, those pathetic beings, through all the years of His heavenly tenure, and then perhaps there would be no need for all these quests and journeys. Yonah, like his buddies who resembled him, all progeny of those aristocraticDecembrists, resided in small, distant settlements that suffered all kinds of troubles, Arabs coming down on their heads, and they ate whatever they could instead of what they should, for there was nothing else. They tried to redefine themselves within the context of a new inner and outer reality, and all while establishing the tenets of the movement itself. Their efforts were aimed at subverting the prior decree, that natural law for those haunted by a God who targeted those exclusively in His hands, that Nagging Nudnik, Don of the Primordial Syndicate, the One standing at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, but who does not enter the Tabernacle despite the fact that Moses, that stirring stutterer, invited him in with such elaborate courtesy that even Miss Manners could take lessons from him. But He can see only the sins of His people, Oh, that Ineffable Name, because of whom it is forbidden to write in the pages of the Torah. And here, in the land of our fathers’ delight, those haunted by Him, those whose necks are outstretched, can finally rest a few hours from this putz. Once there was a feeling that, lo and behold, a future exists, we will prevail, and all the pogroms and catastrophes have come to an end, but then, after a tiny, teeny-weeny historical bleep, the wondrous rebellion fell silent, evaporated, as if it never existed. Oh God! What have we come to? The heavenly shmuck may be all-mighty after all.
Two weeks before I had gone in fear and awe to Alter, and asked to borrow “Giddyup” and “Whoa.” “What a question?” he replied, “take the donkeys, take. I’d do anything to save my brother from his rheumatism and eczema and his lonely night wanderings alongside the barbed wire fences. Even his shoelaces cry out for his many losses, and for those still lying in wait.” Alter’s only conditions were that we must not bring any disgrace upon him, and that on the way we should erase all proclamations pertaining to him in which he is quoted as saying: “More than the Sabbath protected the people of Israel, Uncle Alter protected his small member.” Those were his only conditions, because he had begun to age and feared he would inherit the hellfires of Gehenna. I jumped for joy and said that I was ready to do anything so long as he furnish us with a fitting means of transport. And all of a sudden he was generous and forgot about the half-collapsed shack he lived in which abutted the Hapo’el Hamizrahi synagogue, and forgot about Zina, his wife, who was as ashen as a sack, and was soon to die in the prime of her life, though her death did not change him very much.
His lust for life remained, his tearful, whoring spirit which I was crazy about, and always, always, whenever I came over to see how he was and to laugh a little, there would be a fat woman with massive natural breasts sitting on his lap. He would introduce me to her, adding with a fanfare that one must taste everything that comes along. At times I landed at his place on Yom Kippur. He never visited the synagogue. Father, who acquired a melancholic reverence for their common father, the great Hasid, joined the congregation’s prayers for the sake of the dead Hasid who, throughout his Talmudic life, ate only from the table scraps of the Rebbe of Belz. Meanwhile, our Alter made his way to bed, accompanied by whatever fat ladyfriend was on duty in order to carry out one of humanity’s favorite commandments. He named the narrow and gloomy bedroom “the division of higher education.” I was abandoned on the porch. Then he came out to me in the midst of performing the commandment, covered up his biting nakedness with his big hands, and said that as far as he was concerned I could open the ice box and eat anything I wanted, but to chew with my mouth closed so that “the enemies of the people of Israel should not catch you red-handed.” I loved to sit on the porch of that shack and look around. Every time the door to the synagogue opened, I would hide my head because I had no desire to be made to leave, and I was in seventh heaven if it was Father who slipped out of the synagogue, since he would never come and drag me away from the veranda because of the terrible grudge between him and Alter. So I would sit and stare until my uncle concluded his fast with the fat woman, the bombshell on duty, and part from her with a kiss on her forehead, rather than put his hands between her legs, in complete contradiction to what it says in the esteemed Shulhan Arukh. Then she would retreat toward the abandoned orchard, walk the long way round for some reason, perhaps because she was barred from passing by the synagogue. Alter, after he got himself together and rinsed his blanched nuts, would sit beside me and ask how he looked. “Perfectly fine, perfectly fine,” I’d reply. Then he would break out laughing his saliva-filled laughter, or let out a damp cry and say that his accumulated sins were too heavy to bear, and no Yom Kippur could help. Moreover, his proximity to the synagogue was of no help. Then he would add that on Yom Kippur he goes right for the main course, the meat, without touching the soup or the side dishes. For this they might deduct a small percentage of his stay in Gehenna. So when I asked for the wagon and the two donkeys, he jumped for joy saying: “Go already, get going, the main thing is that you should praise me to high heaven.”
Back at home, the dead clock sounded one o’clock in the afternoon, an astounding hour in everyone’s opinion. It was not actually the clock, since it was dead, it was another clock. But His Highness said: “The clock is dead.” I had to repeat his words as if to confirm his existence, and then Father declared that he would go to the employment office at the beginning of November. Mind you, it was only the third of September, but all matters of holidays and appointed times were never my domain, as far as he was concerned. I also kept my mouth shut because elections might be held tomorrow. Is there anything more important than that? If indeed elections were to be held, then I would have to accompany Mrs. Mom to the ballot box, not out of concern for her personal security, but to confirm that she was not voting for the Progressive or the Liberal Party, because of her long-standing declaration that she was tired of always voting the same way and that it was high time to change the government. “With all due respect for the working man,” she would say, “it’s not fair that only the labor parties make themselves at home here.” She was more democratic, this not-so-young maiden, than all the righteous democratic nations.
If it were up to her, she would have voted for Mr. Singer, the one whose name appears on her sewing machine. More than once she challenged my father, saying that Singer would be a fine prime minister because he built elegant, fast machines that didn’t require you to always pull at the thread. With such genius, he could lead the country toward security and permanent peace with Venezuela. That’s what Venezuela said. We couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow, so she asked in perfect innocence whether we shared a common border with Venezuela. Surprised, we said nothing. Then she said that geography was never her concern, and if we said nothing, then our silence was proof that she had erred slightly. Wasn’t that allowed? And besides, she added, according to the pictures of military parades that flooded the country, she was sure that one day we’d share a border with Venezuela, perhaps as a result of excessive expansion—like the sun that one day will become a red giant and swallow most of the planets. Or the opposite: the People of the Valise will be compelled to take their suitcases down from the attic and return to their familiar ways, to the good and well-trodden course of wandering. Then, because of failed ideological implementation, Father added, Providence will again reign, and if there’s anything that Providence favors it’s to see His children, the Light unto the Nations—some light, some power outage—hopping between longitudes and latitudes. Shame!
In the afternoon the likeable Mr. Litvak the communist appeared and reminded us that elections were to be held tomorrow. “Praise be to God,” said Father. “After tomorrow they won’t forget us Mapainiks.” He told Litvak that we had decided to postpone the journey to Mesopotamia because our votes, his and Mother’s, would tip the balance in favor of the best of the parties. Then Litvak reminded him that he must appear in his proper balloting location ten minutes before it opens in order to prevent a chirkes—fraudulent manipulations—and other kinds of electoral irregularities that only the head of a Mapainik could invent. “Litvak, have you gone crazy?! How could I forget an election?” He uttered his words not only because he was a natural political animal, but also because he loved to have a go at all the party delegates who acted as if they’d invented spaghetti, the wheel, and in their spare time the capital letter M, no more and no less. He liked to joke with his adversaries, the Herut men, whom he loved, not because their ideas were the opposite of his, but because they were delightful people, haunted like he was, and they performed for him on the spot their repertoire of speeches: “Two Banks Has the Jordan,” “The Iron Wall,” and “Saying of the Man of Blood.” They also came wearing long pants so that their leonine flesh would not show.
I accompanied Mother to vote and did not feel so well because Father shouted at me that we’d be lost if she were to vote for the Progressives. Nevertheless I decided that I would not check to see that she voted kosher; I would allow Mother, who was more democratic than all the hypochondriacs of whom Mr. Nissim Levy speaks in one of his wonderful plays (“All are hypochondriacs, all these democrats. An airliner crashes every day.”), to exercise her freedom. So on the way from our Cape Canaveral, namely from the house from which we were to launch ourselves for Mesopotamia and Gushpanka, she said that she was going all the way with Golda, despite all the not-so-nice things “that you men say about her.” In the afternoon I went to his balloting station where he evoked a great deal of laughter among all the other observers, and teased the delegates of the religious Zionist party with great charm.
At the end of an exhausting day we returned home and clung to the radio, after which we fell asleep, one upon the other. Mother didn’t care in the slightest about the outcome. Toward morning the paperboy woke us, yelling over and over: “We won, we won,” as if it could have been otherwise. Mother asked whether Golda won, and the paperboy said, “Of course!” Then he hugged Father and me and the carob tree that didn’t understand what the hubbub was about. He also wanted to hug Mother who said, “Only after we know the final results.” She was already dressed in her best work clothes. All the neighbors shouted: “Let us sleep, a plague on you. How much longer do we have to tolerate you and your politics?” For a change, Father did not respond because victory was at hand. Mother went to work elated, and Father said that the time has come to relax, and he whipped out of his threadbare coat pocket sandwiches that were brought to the balloting place a day before by the regional heads, namely Litvak and a distant relative of Yohanan Bader. Then he asked me if I wanted a sandwich on the tab of the elections committee, saying, “We are very lucky. We have sandwiches. We will not be parasites on your hard-working mother today.”
Then a wonderful idea came to him: dig a tunnel from the bathroom out to the fruit trees in the yard. He suggested that we dig in shifts so that if he were to emerge first from the tunnel, then we’d leave for Mesopotamia as he recommended, and if our excavations concluded during my shift, then we’d head my way. We ran to the storage shed and brought work tools and fixed a lantern upon our heads, into which we placed a candle. Mother entered as we were about to dig up the first tile. We were so surprised that we couldn’t say a thing. She called out our names and we did not answer. Then she opened the door to the bathroom and saw us standing with all our equipment and said, “Too bad, I was about to call the police. If I didn’t know you, that’s what I would have done.” Father said: “Pshakref! Dog’s Blood! When will we ever escape all this?”
Copyright © Avshalom Kaveh 2013. Translation copyright © Stephen Katz 2013.
This story originally appeared in Hebrew (“Nirdefei Hashem”) in Kaveh’s anthology, Bushot, published in 2002 by Hakibbutz Hameuchad.
Avshalom Kaveh is an Israeli iconoclast about Israeli society, politics, authorities and literature. Born in Ra’anana, he was a sailor following his military service in nahal and paratroopers. He studied history at the Hebrew University, was a journalist for some years, and now lives near Ben Shemen, where he is a teacher. His books include Bushot (Shames, 2002); Ahuzat mahol (Dance Estate, about kibbutz dancers, published in 2003); the novel Hamirpeset (The Porch, 2004); Lula’ot (Loops, 2004), Hayam hazakuf (The Erected Sea, 2006); and Muzikah liseratim (Music for the Movies, 2011).
Stephen Katz (the translator) teaches Hebrew Literature at Indiana University. His main interests are the fiction of S.Y. Agnon and American Hebrew literature, which was the subject of his last book, Red, Black, and Jew (2009). He translated Avshalom Kaveh’s “Quince” and Yona Bachur’s “The Doll” for Zeek (Spring 2010 and February 2008); “So Miriam Spoke of Moses,” by E. E. Lisitzky, in CCAR Journal (Fall 2008); and Hillel Barzel’s study, “The Concealed Meaning of H.N. Bialik's ‘He Glimpsed and Died,’”Modern Language Studies, XIX:3 (Summer, 1989). The translator extends histhanks and appreciation to Avshalom Kaveh and Professor Dov-Ber Kerler, and especially to Professor Adam Rovner for assisting with the translation.